At the recent Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) annual general meeting, the XL Foods E.coli fiasco was a prominent topic of discussion. Considerable frustration was expressed by ABP officials of their inability to get the urban and national media to present the cattle industry’s perspective of the unfolding events.
Apparently, numerous interviews were carried out and many media phone calls were fielded by the ABP — yet the cattle industry appeared conspicuous by its absence in the public discussions and media. That caused so much consternation within the organization that it was decided to send a letter to producers to inform them that despite the lack of media appearances, the ABP had done everything possible to advance the industry’s position on the issue.
The problem seemed to be the urban media and their perceived lack of understanding of the cattle industry. Well, that’s true to a point, but two other matters were at play here that caused the city media to seemingly ignore the cattle industry interest in the E. coli issue.
First, the issue involved beef — not cattle, which made it very different from the BSE crisis, for instance. The media back then had to deal with livestock organizations, as the issue involved live cattle and a producer where the disease was traced to. Consumers, retailers and processing plants tended to be on the periphery with the BSE outbreak, as eating tainted beef was not the news issue back then.
Also, with this case, there was a precedent of sorts, that being the listeria outbreak at the Maple Leaf Foods plant a few years ago. That situation set a pattern for reporters and it didn’t include the livestock producer side of the story.
In that case, urban media folks made the link between getting sick from eating a steak to a retail store to a processing plant. Linking it further to feedlots and cattle ranchers was something they couldn’t grasp, or was just unnecessarily complicating the issue with no headline benefit.
The latter is really key to why the cattle industry was out of the PR loop with the urban and national media. The cattle industry spokespeople didn’t give the citymedia the necessary “headline candy” to get their attention. That approach is needed when you are a third party to the issue and not directly involved.
Media reporters were not interested in carefully phrased responses from the industry. Sure, that’s a safe approach, but it doesn’t generate sensational headlines and 10-second TV news clips, which is the first order of business for city media. The PR reality is that cautious reaction gets you ignored — bold action (real or imagined) gets you media attention. That last point is well understood by most lobby groups.
There was another point that annoyed the urban media and that became a news story by itself almost overshadowing the main story. In the Maple Leaf Foods incident, the company was front and centre, taking responsibility and apologizing profusely to consumers and the media. Although XL Foods acknowledged their role in the fiasco, they had no intention of publicly whipping themselves for no particular purpose.
The fact was that the marketing impact of a disease outbreak on the two plants and companies was quite different. The urban media could not understand that difference and was howling for more public apologies and admission of guilt. In my view, the Nilssons did the right thing.
The urban media was also being less than transparent when it came to the Maple Leaf Foods precedent.
That company spent millions of advertising dollars on various national and city media, telling consumers how sorry they were and encouraged them to trust their brand again. If the urban media was under the delusion that they could somehow force XL Foods by sheer guilt to do the same thing, they were quite mistaken. That situation turned into a standoff, but it was a more interesting story than any platitudes from the cattle industry. Hence, the reality that they were ignored by the media.
On the other hand, perhaps the cattle industry should be thankful they wereignored by the urban media in this incident. Whenever your product is linked to poisoning, disease and possible death, it’s tough to spin a positive response and it may just lead to even more unwanted revelations.
In this case, maybe the cattle industry dodged a bad PR bullet. Let’s hope that luck continues, because incidents like this are sure to happen again.