Thursday, January 29

Clashing Communication: Peanut Corporation of America


The Web site of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has named the source of the salmonella typhimurium epidemic, is radically changed.

A few weeks ago, the PCA site read much like any site. Although dated, top news items included the opening of a new peanut blanching and granulating facility in Plainview, Texas; a message from Stewart Parnell, president, who expressed that quality and freshness of product are what bring our customers back; and a 2004 “Superior” rating from the A.I.B. (American Institute of Baking) audit at a balancing facility that praised the quality control manager for taking food safety seriously.

At Peanut Corporation of America, we know we need to shine so that you and your customers can be assured of consistent quality, safety, and dependability when you allow us to process your peanuts.

Unfortunately, just as the site experienced its largest and only traffic spike for the wrong reasons, all of that information has been replaced by the Peanut Corporation of America Media Page (illustrated above). The oldest item, entitled "Peanut Corporation of America Announces Voluntary Nationwide Recall of Peanut Butter," ends with: The company prides itself on the quality and freshness of its products and strives constantly to maintain an environment in compliance with federal, state and local regulations and guidelines to provide a clean, safe product.

The newest item, as of Jan. 28, includes a "Statement by the Parnell Family and Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)." The heavy-handed response "categorically denies any allegations that the Company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."

The statement comes after a flurry of condemning news stories based on the release of a document that lists observations made by FDA representatives. The report details that some lots of peanut butter had tested positive for various salmonella strains. The firm then retested the lots and received a negative status. This occurred several times since as far back as June 2007.

According to the FDA report, the possible cause is that the company had "not established the effectiveness temperature, volume, or belt speed specific to this roster to assure it is adequate as a kill step for pathogenic bacteria." Additional observations included: failure to maintain equipment to protect against contamination, failure to store food under conditions to protect against contamination, and environmental swabs at the facility revealed several areas tested positive for salmonella strains.

Why The Crisis Communication Process Of The PCA Places The Company In Jeopardy.

Since the beginning, the PCA has embraced the classic step-by-step response to the crisis when a step-by-step crisis communication plan did not meet the situation. The result is that the PCA is in a much more critical position that may not be recoverable even upon the insistence that the FD-483 documents “… do not represent a final Agency determination regarding [your] compliance." As soon as that statement was posted, the only analogy that fit was "runaway train."

While the PCA branding efforts had already placed it at considerable risk under the rules of our fragile brand theory, the real breakdown seems to have occurred at the very beginning, during the situation analysis portion of the crisis communication process. Situation analysis requires an unsympathetic internal review of the facts to determine the communication.

A seasoned crisis communicator might have asked the right questions. In this case, they seem all too apparent.

• What happened? A quick assessment of what seems to be occurring on the forefront establishes the context of the communication. At the PCA, the context, simply put, is that they seemed to be the source of salmonella typhimurium epidemic.

• What is the truth? Asking what happened is not enough. Having been part of several crisis communication situations, the very next question is "what is the truth?" Or, in the case of the PCA, it might have been asked differently. Someone needed to ask "were we negligent in our operations and did we do everything we could do to avoid this as we have continually pledged to our customers?"

• What evidence will support or distract from this truth? While it seems unlikely the PCA could have beat the FDA inspectors in discovering every observation, several items in the report could have been discovered first. While the crisis communication team was drafting non-committed but empathetic recall statement, an investigation could have already been underway.

• Despite personal feelings, what do these findings mean? Often times in crisis communication, perception will overshadow any facts. Simply put, it doesn't matter what the FDA concludes. Observations made by the FDA have concluded a severe breach of safety standards that the company had committed to and reinforced in virtually every piece of communication, including the first recall statement. The perception of evidence needed to be determined, and perhaps isolated to specific events, in the situation analysis phase.

• Never hazard a guess. Considering most crisis communication processes have to be executed within hours if not minutes, it is not feasible to assume that all the facts will be gathered. Under any circumstances, do not guess. When Parnell included that the safety of consumers is a priority in his first statement, it was possibly a guess. While it does not excuse the plant from wrongdoing, the question he needed to ask was "were my people ensuring safety as a priority?" And if not, why not?

It is never easy to see companies self-destruct under the weight of a crisis. But as communicators, whether internal or external, it is our job to be even tougher on our clients or customers during a crisis. Had the PCA crisis team been tough on the onset, it may not have saved the company, but it would have made the crisis much more manageable.

More on this crisis next Tuesday or possibly as events occur, including highlights on how other companies handled a crisis that may not have originated with them, but impacted them and their customers nonetheless. It's important because most people have never heard of the PCA. Customers only know products.

7 comments:

Rich on 1/30/09, 7:11 AM said...

"Good article on crisis communication. Sadly, PCA acted in such a blatant criminal manner that I doubt that any logical self-examination was welcomed." — Johnny via Spinthicket.

Hmmm ... maybe so.

Rich on 1/30/09, 7:20 AM said...

More words:

“He was just in screaming pain. He said, ‘It hurts so bad, I want to die’ — something you don’t expect to hear out of a 7-year-old’s mouth.” — Gabrielle Meunier of South Burlington, Vt. to the New York Times

Anonymous said...

"Although we support PCA’s precautionary move to recall additional products, since the health
and safety of the consumer is our highest priority, one thing is certain — willful neglect of public
health and safety cannot be tolerated under any circumstance. This is a clear and unconscionable act by one manufacturer. This act is not by any means representative of the excellent food safety practices and procedures of the U.S. peanut industry." —  Patrick Archer, president of
the American Peanut Council

Stephanie on 1/30/09, 5:33 PM said...

I've worked with contractors for the government for ages. Spin, spin, spin, CYA, pretend it's just an unhappy circumstance and that you're a victim, too.

Bastards. I have no sympathy with anyone who plays fast and loose with people's lives.

Rich on 1/31/09, 9:15 AM said...

Stephanie,

I don't blame you. The fact that the PCA required the FDA to enact a bioterrorism provision in order to inspect those records speaks volumes.

Companies need to realize it doesn't have to be spin.

Best,
Rich

Rich on 1/31/09, 10:38 AM said...

More words:

"Federal health officials have begun a criminal investigation into the actions of the Peanut Corporation of America, which they said knowingly sold contaminated peanut butter and peanut products to major food makers." — New York Times

We've also recently discovered that this FDA ordered recall was NOT the first time that the PCA had been cited with unsafe manufacturing practices.

Rich on 1/31/09, 1:01 PM said...

Update:

For the latest on this crisis communication case study, click here.

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