Wednesday, January 28

Poisoning PR: Peanut Corporation of America


Almost 20 full days have passed since the Minnesota Department of Health suggested King Nut brand creamy peanut butter as a likely source of salmonella typhimurium, and was quickly linked to Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which provides ingredients to more than 180 peanut butter products.

In the days following, company after company began recalling peanut butter products: Snacks, cake mixes, candies, cookies, crackers, ice creams, pet foods, pre-packaged products, etc. Jarred peanut butter is not part of the recall.

Kellogg Company was one of the first, placing on hold on certain Austin® and Keebler® branded Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers immediately following the news that the PCA was the source on Jan. 14. It recalled those products two days later, and has expanded its recall since. Jenny Craig, Inc. was one of the last. It issued a voluntary recall of select Anytime Peanut Butter Flavor Nutritional Bars on Jan. 27. It is important to note that involvement in the recall may be precautionary.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also publishing a long list of company recalls issued by company here. Although most of the recall releases follow the FDA recommended guidelines, the subtle variations suggest vast differences in corporate cultures, crisis experience, and customer relations.

Some companies offered refunds. Some offered replacements. Some offered nothing.

Some companies offered direct contact lines. Some companies offered the CDC hotline. Some offered no contact.

Some companies included quotes. Some companies quoted the FDA, CDC, or even the president of PCA. Some did not.

Highlights of recall release notes from several companies.

“Landies Candies apologizes for any inconvenience to our customers,” said Lawrence R. Szrama, president. “Landies Candies’ product quality and consumer safety have been our top priority for over 23 years and our decision today reflects that tradition.”

"The health and safety of our clients are our number one concern,” said Amy Armish, Director of Food Technology and Quality Assurance, Jenny Craig, Inc. “We are communicating directly with our clients and consultants and are urging all clients who have purchased or are in possession of this product to immediately destroy them. Clients seeking a replacement bar are being asked to visit their Jenny Craig centre or call their Jenny Craig consultant and a replacement bar will be issued in its place or an adjustment made to their next order."

"We are in full cooperation with the FDA during this recall process as we only want to provide the best, and safest product to our customers. Thankfully no illnesses have been reported in conjunction with any of our products," said Jay Littmann, CEO and President of Chef Jay's Food Products.

Mark Tarner, President of The South Bend Chocolate Company, said: “we are taking these steps out of concern for our customers”.

"We regret the need to take this action, but the complete safety of our customers and consumers is our highest priority," said Chris Geist, Chief Operating Officer, Premier Nutrition.

"The safety of our customers is our highest priority, and in keeping with the recommendations by the FDA, we are urging all consumers who have purchased or are in possession of this product to immediately destroy them," said Sharon Tate, Vice President of Quality Assurance, NutriSystem, Inc. "Customers seeking a replacement bar are being asked to call a NutriSystem representative at 1-866-491-6425 or e-mail PBbar@Nutrisystem.com and a replacement bar will be issued in its place."

"With an abundance of caution and given the FDA's ongoing investigation of PCA, we're doing all we can to ensure consumer safety and trust," said Gary Erickson, owner and founder of Clif Bar & Company.

"The safety of our customers has always been our number one priority," said Stacie Behler, vice president of public affairs for Meijer. "Meijer has taken these precautionary steps to help protect our customers and will return this product to our stores only once it is safe for our shoppers."

"Product quality and consumer safety have been our top priority for over 90 years and our decision today reflects that tradition,” said Robert Denning, president and CEO, Perry’s Ice Cream. “We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers."

"The actions we are taking today are in keeping with our more than 100-year commitment to providing consumers with safe, high-quality products," said David Mackay, president and CEO, Kellogg Company. "We apologize for this unfortunate situation."

When compared side by side, the differences between the communication becomes the communication. It reveals where the company places concern, who they feel is best suited to deliver the message, and to some degree, which have a crisis communication plan in place and which might not. We recommend all companies have a crisis communication plan.

We also recommend all communicators and public relations professionals buy an AP Stylebook. Titles need to be lower case when they follow a name (except CEO when used as an acronym). Yes, this includes "president," except President of the U.S.

The most telling recall releases of all are from the PCA.

The Exert on Jan. 10: PCA's facility and products are frequently and rigorously tested for salmonella and other microbiological contamination, including hourly sampling during processing and subsequent analysis by an outside, independent laboratory. No salmonella has ever been found in any of PCA's product.

The Quote on Jan. 13: “We deeply regret that this has happened,” said Stewart Parnell, owner and president of PCA. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are voluntarily withdrawing this product and contacting our customers. We are taking these actions with the safety of our consumers as our first priority.”

The Quote on Jan. 16: "We deeply regret that this product recall is expanding and our first priority is to protect the health of our customers. Our company has worked around the clock for the last week with federal regulators to help identify any potential problems. Our Blakely facility is currently not operating as we continue to work with federal food safety investigators," Parnell said.

The Truth on Jan. 28: Officials say the Peanut Corp. of America plant had repeatedly shipped products that the company's own initial tests found to be positive for salmonella. They say the company also failed to take standard steps to prevent contamination within the plant.

As of 9 p.m. on Jan. 25, more than 501 persons infected with the outbreak strain of salmonella typhimurium have been reported from 43 states. The infection may have contributed to eight deaths. Our heartfelt sympathies are with the families.

There are too many companies and too many conclusions to be drawn from such a sweeping epidemic in a single post. We are opening living case study, which will consist of a series of posts strung together by the label "PCA", beginning tomorrow with what seems to be a severe breach of public trust by that company. The posts will not be daily, but frequent.

It is our continued hope that communicators will learn how to better prepare for crisis communication by blending proven processes and a deeper appreciation for situational communication. Crisis communication is more than a list of bullet points and boilerplates. And every company, sooner or later, will face one.

6 comments:

Jeremiah on 1/28/09, 1:16 PM said...

Thanks for the post, Rich. Because I'm a huge fan of peanut butter, I always pay attention to these types of issues.

It's unfortunate that this company was so negligent in their control of the situation. The fact that it has lead to so many illnesses, and even deaths, should not go unpunished. Hopefully the issue can be resolved in a timely manner now that the truth has finally come out.

Stephanie on 1/28/09, 9:33 PM said...

I don't know how the people who run such organizations sleep at night. But then, I'm in safety. Playing fast and loose with people's lives: seriously not good.

Rich on 1/30/09, 7:08 AM said...

@Jeremiah

You deserve ample kudos for prompting me in the right direction, and challenging me to take this subject on.

The complexity of this issue is huge. And, I am thinking that there are some challenging questions ahead about our food supply lines that go beyond the PCA.

If there is any good to come out of this, then I hope it is for communicators to tighten up their crisis communication skills and for companies like the PCA to realize that you cannot simply SAY you are about quality and safety ... you have be DO it too.

@Stephanie

You touched one of the biggest questions of all.

How did this happen? How does a company that touted to be the cleanest and safest plant in the United States lose its way? And, assuming some of owners did not know, what changed? Did growth hinder their ability to remain as hands on as they seemed to be? Or did they forget their mission all together in favor of fast profits?

What is much more clear to me, from a communication standpoint, is that the PCA could have been in a much better position had someone been asking the right questions from the start.

I am also amazed that the PCA hasn't offered restitution for families affected. It would seem to me that would be higher on the priority list than brushing aside accountability.

All my best,
Rich

Anonymous said...

I think it comes down to one simple word: GREED! It is pretty clear they cared more about $s than about anything else. I say: do it to them Chinese-style!

Anonymous said...

The poor public relations response is reflective of a deeper issue: the focus on profits/avoiding liability over the potential impact on consumers.

Across the border, last year Canadian company Maple Leaf experienced a similar crisis: a number of people died of listeriosis after eating tainted luncheon meat products.

I think Maple Leaf's handling of the crisis ranged from very good to exemplary. From the start, the company's leadership demonstrated their concern for affected individuals and their families, along with the well being of the public. While it will still take some time to completely restore consumer confidence in their brand, I expect it will happen a lot more quickly b/c of how they handled the situation.

Rich on 2/23/09, 9:26 AM said...

Anon,

Exactly true. Poor communication is often the sign of a deeper issue.

In the film industry, there is old saying that a good script can result in a good or bad movie, but a bad script always makes for a bad movie. The same with communication.

Maple Leaf is a good example. Good communication can save a company when it experiences something bad, providing the company did not knowingly place the public in harm's way.

In contrast, PCA was a blatant case of negligence and what some say was a clear violation of the law. There is no hope for them. I'll be closing this one out very soon.

Best,
Rich

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