Tuesday, February 10

Spinning Salmonella: Peanut Corporation of America

"PCA is second to nobody in its desire to know all the facts, and our team is working day and night to recall affected products and to complete its investigation." — Peanut Corporation of America

With the FBI issuing search warrants to assist the FDA in its ongoing investigation of the Peanut Corporation of America's (PCA) plant in Blakely, Ga., and corporate headquarters in Lynchburg, Va., it seems everyone wants to know the facts well ahead of "nobody."

Recently, the Associated Press reported that federal officials say the PCA knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products from its Georgia plant even after tests confirmed the contamination. Since federal law forbids producing or shipping foods that could be harmful to the public health, it also seems there will be charges.

Specifically, the FDA believes that the plant sold peanuts that tested positive for salmonella before receiving the second test and even after confirming salmonella was present. This is no longer a crisis communication case study as much as it seems to be a criminal investigation. Period.

How botched crisis communication is often indicative of cover up.

Some public relations specialists might be tempted to spin, but there is only one right answer when public safety is concerned. Tell the client or employer to come clean, immediately, with full disclosure and complete transparency. If they refuse, inform them that you are obligated to go forward without them.

We saw a similar case study unfold in the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada last year. The communication failed because there was only one thing to communicate — the bad practices were done, knowingly unsafe, in order to cut costs. In fact, the same might be said to Dr. Dipak Desai's attorneys. They claim Desai cannot testify after suffering two strokes. His inability to testify is still in question. Get it over with already.

While it is too early to say that the PCA operated with an equal and complete disregard for public health, the FDA is clearly moving in that direction. Even more interesting to us, the communication breakdown of both the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and PCA are surprisingly similar.

Ten similarities between the crisis communication breakdown at the Peanut Corporation of America and Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

• At the onset, both owners aggressively defended their operations, claiming that every safety precaution was taken.
• Neither expressed remorse, regret, or empathy despite unsafe practices (until someone told them to express empathy).
• Both regretted having to take action, but did not express any regret for their responsibility in harming others.
• After new evidence surfaced that demonstrated it was an ongoing practice, virtually all communication was cut off.
• There was virtually no communication with employees as they were laid off; former employees then came forward.
• Neither offered any compensation for those affected by their negligence, which, in this case, included deaths.
• Neither expressed any desire to compensate anyone for pain, suffering, and anguish at being put in harm’s way.
• Neither would pledge that they and their management team would never work in the profession again.
• Both continually reinforced not everyone was affected, even when it meant neglecting those who were.
• Both attempted to draw out the investigations as long as possible; and both resisted while claiming cooperation.

While it is too soon to call this case over as criminal charges have yet to be filed (although it seems likely there will be charges), Stewart Parnell, PCA president, could likely join those who put pennies before public safety. And even if he does not, his peanut days are done. The PCA and its various direct-to-consumer brands have crashed.

It happened fast, but not over night. Like all brand failures, they usually erode one shaky step at a time.


Anonymous said...

The similarities between the two companies, as you have illustrated, is pretty uncanny. Great examples of how a company should not handle a crisis. Love the case study, thank you!

Rich on 2/10/09, 2:07 PM said...


It is uncanny. It illustrates a near perfect match on how companies that are attempting to cover up a breach of pubic safety communicate.

Looking back over other case studies, there is a very clear difference. Companies that practice with authenticity tend to place the concern on those harmed during a crisis instead of simply being concerned about themselves. (Take a look at Jet Blue or some others for example.)

I suppose it stands to reason. Their self-concern is what put them in crisis to begin with.


Anonymous said...

I really think these kind of things happen at a very personal level for the leadership.

wishful thinking, hoping they can close their eyes and it will go away.

I mean we know it's bad PR, bad communication, and probably less of an intentional cover up than it is pychological denial - I guess that's a cover up too. Remarkably bad leadership.

Rich on 2/11/09, 9:25 AM said...


Leadership is becoming increasing scarce in major companies. Harvard has been tracking this for about two years now. Some of the shake ups were seeing in with down economy illustrate where some of the weaknesses are.

In these two case though, it isn't accidental. You either use a vial for injections or you do not. You either scrap a batch of bad peanuts or you do not.

The communication broke down because there was something to cover up. The initial reaction was aimed to deflect further attention. It doesn't work.

Great points, though. It shows you are thinking. :)


Rich on 2/11/09, 2:52 PM said...

More words:

The manufacturer responsible for the peanut recall has had a second plant shut down for shipping salmonella contaminated products. This time in Texas.


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