REHEARSING THE UNTHINKABLE
AGRIMARKETERS PLAN FOR BIOTERRORISM THREATS
by Mark Ingebretsen, Contributing Editor
To get a sense of what an agroterrorism attack might look like, think back to the spring of 2001 - a time when black smoke billowed up from the placid English countryside. The source of the smoke was thousands of cattle carcasses burned to contain BSE or mad cow disease.
While the epidemic devastated the British beef industry, agrimarketers in the U.S. can find reasons for hope from the British experience. First, thanks largely to hard work by regulators and businesses, BSE did not spread to our shores. Second, following the scare, U.S. consumers continue to purchase meat products, confident of their safety.
Agrimarketers can glean many valuable lessons from the recent mad cow disease epidemic as well as similar threats such as the e-coli and Tylenol scares. The most important lesson, perhaps, is that companies need to plan now to protect themselves from a possible threat. Equally important, they need to rehearse how they'll communicate with their customers if - heaven forbid - they fall victim to an agroterrorism attack.
"Food is a zero tolerance issue," explains Daren Williams, senior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard's Kansas City office and crisis specialist. By zero tolerance he means that people buy food products expecting them to be 100 percent safe. Thus, if companies fail to take reasonable steps to protect their products, the public will have little sympathy if a problem arises - even if the problem is clearly not management's fault. Put simply, "Food companies can't afford to have a bioterrorism attack and say we didn't do anything to prepare for it," Williams says.
Little surprise, following the 9-11 attacks America's food companies have rushed to create preparedness plans. "We're taking a number of steps in that area," advises Larry Cunningham, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Archer Daniels Midland, Decatur, Ill. Cunningham cited coordinated efforts with trade associations and government agencies (see Agriculture's Response article, this issue). But like other food industry executives Agri Marketing spoke with, he was understandably reluctant to discuss specific measures.
CONNECTING WITH CUSTOMERS NOW
Meanwhile, some companies have devised ways to go on the offensive against agroterrorism threats. One example: Fort Dodge Animal Health. The Overland Park, Kan. maker of animal medicines enlisted its own customers in an effort to increase vigilance. In early November, Fort Dodge, a subsidiary of American Home Products, released a booklet on bioterrorism to the firm's 50,000 veterinarian customers. A goal of the booklet was to enlist those vets as a first line of defense against potential threats.
"Veterinarians know the disease patterns in their area," says Dr. Stephen Connell who helped produce the guide. "So they may be the first to spot any unusual patterns." Using a simple chart, the guide summarizes the symptoms of potential bioterrorist diseases like foot and mouth that are harmless to humans but might devastate livestock populations. It also describes more serious threats such as plague and hemorrhagic fevers that can spread from animals to humans. Part of the guide's purpose in the post-9-11 era is to help vets recognize when something is not a threat, says Connell. "As important as our vigilance is," he says, "we must be equally mindful not to overreact to circumstances that are not immediately understood."
DISCOVERING A COMPANY'S VULNERABILITIES
Knowing when and how to react in the face of a potential threat depends on knowing precisely where a company is most vulnerable, says Williams. He instructs clients to study their entire operation. The goal: Identify vulnerabilities and devise ways to nullify them. Following such a review, a company might decide to improve its packaging, for example, or conduct more aggressive employee background checks.
Sometimes, he notes, threats can arise that have nothing to do with the company's own products. Williams says a recent client asked for advice after it learned that its mail-order catalogs were processed at a postal facility later found to contain anthrax. In the end, Williams and the company sought advice from the health department that assured them the catalogs were safe.
Knowing whom to call - from the health department to law enforcement - for such expert advice is crucial to any preparedness plan, Williams says. But with overlapping agencies regulating the food industry, that's not always easy. If a company believes its meat products have been tainted, the local USDA should be consulted, he says. But if the problem arises from contaminated feed, then it may be an FDA problem. Failing to contact the responsible agency can waste precious hours in a time of crisis.
Besides consulting the right agencies for help during crises, it's important to have the right people supporting you when you speak to the media, advises media consultant Eileen Wixted. Much of the work of her Des Moines-based firm Wixted Pope Nora Thompson & Associates involves helping companies communicate effectively in dire times. Her client list includes Sara Lee and the National Pork Producers as well as major airlines and several dozen nuclear power plants nationwide. Wixted's advice: "Always coordinate your communications efforts with the proper agencies." Relevant trade associations, law enforcement officials, regulatory agencies and local health authorities should all speak from the same podium during news conferences, for example. "People feel more reassured when they know many organizations are working together."
Like other companies specializing in crisis management, Wixted's firm has seen a pick-up in business since 9-11. "Ninety percent of the work we're doing right now is fire drills," Wixted says. Such drills can take several days and involve people from all levels of the company. The goal is to realistically simulate an actual crisis.
Knowing what audiences to reach and when it's appropriate to speak to them is especially critical. Company employees, for example, are often the first group in need of information, Wixted says. One reason for that is employees want to know steps are being taken to protect their safety. Another reason: In a crisis, rumors inevitably spread within an organization and can quickly reach the public. "The tendency is to circle the wagons during a crisis, when in fact the opposite is necessary. In the absence of communication, people think the worst," she says.
During the fire drills, executives also learn the art of grace under pressure. To train them, reporters badger executives with hard questions in mock TV interviews, while newspaper reporters demand minute details, facts, and figures for their lengthier stories.
Wixted says FBI and law enforcement officials may take part in these drills, working with management to devise a consistent response. Company lawyers may participate, too, approving drafts of media releases.
THE TRUTH HELPS
According to Williams it's vital to get just that sort of "buy-in" from all levels of management. Likewise, it's important the public receives the right information. During an agroterrorism crisis people will want to know three things: "What did you know; when did you know it; and what did you do about it?"
Unfortunately, companies - governments, too - often stumble badly when they face the press. During the height of the BSE crisis, for example, a prominent U.K. official fed his child a hamburger on TV. His intent was to show the meat was safe. But the action outraged viewers. Similarly, Williams says, health officials in the U.S. made mistakes communicating details about the anthrax attacks during the early going. Some openly speculated that the disease's first victim might have caught it while hunting.
To keep communications efforts focused and helpful, Williams offers three guidelines. Don't speculate about the cause, he advises. Instead, give a detailed account of what's being done to counter the threat. Then recommend specific steps people can take to protect themselves.
Above all, Williams says, don't offer false reassurances that can come back to haunt you. Case in point: The Japanese government at first assured its people that BSE would not spread to Japan, when in fact such assurances were impossible to make. When BSE did show up in Japan, the government was forced to recant. The lesson: Companies should never proclaim their products are immune from a bioterrorist attack. "I don't think we can honestly say that we have the means to prevent someone from attacking the food supply," Williams says.
Williams says the U.S. Postal Service devised a better way to help reassure its customers. Instead of claiming the mail was 100 percent safe from anthrax, it stressed the relatively low risk of becoming infected. Then, to assist its customers, the post office sent a card to every U.S. mail recipient. The card clearly explained how to detect possibly tainted mail and how to handle it if found.
Faced with a possible agroterrorism threat, companies would do well to emulate that approach. For example, if one item on the grocery produce department were somehow contaminated, it would be a mistake for other produce firms to claim their products were safe. Rather, they should inform consumers that security measures were in place and encourage them to decide whether buying the product was worth the risk. AM