Mad cow PR campaigns (U.S.)

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Mad cow PR campaigns have accompanied (and sometimes preceded) the appearance of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE or "mad cow disease," in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. The December 2003 discovery of an infected cow in Washington state led U.S. meat industry associations, government agencies and associated public relations firms to engage in such campaigns. Common goals include maintaining or building public and consumer confidence, communicating the government or industry view of the situation, and avoiding negative repercussions.

Industry Crisis Communications: Responding to Mad Cow in Canada

Canadian officials announced the discovery of an infected cow in Alberta on May 20, 2003 - seven months before the Washington state case. In June 2004, the Public Relations Society of America bestowed its highest honor, the Silver Anvil Award, to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Cattlemen's Beef Board for Crisis Communications/ Issues Management, under the title "U.S. Beef Industry Successfully Protected During Canadian BSE Crisis."[1] The giant PR firm Burson-Marsteller, although not named in the award, took partial credit since NCBA is one of the PR firm's "client teams."[2]

According to the Silver Anvil Winners' Profiles, the beef industry groups developed a comprehensive "BSE Issues Management Plan" in the 1980s, which is "constantly refined." Plan goals include providing a "unified, respected voice for the beef industry" and using NCBA's expertise with "public relations and issues management to successfully protect the U.S. beef industry." Objectives include conveying "the facts and science of the issue to lead media outlets"; liaising with key federal agencies, administration and congressional officials, financial institutions and industry associations "to assure that the facts and science drive decisions"; being "the clearinghouse for information and messages for ... industry stakeholders"; and tracking "consumer confidence and demand."[3](Note: reference link will download PDF file)

Implementation of the BSE plan cost some $200,000 and included "email and broadcast fax advisories to NCBA leaders, member organizations, stakeholder organizations, retail and foodservice partners," "news releases/statements to consumer, business and trade media," and information dissemination via the NCBA website and "a crisis communication dark Web site dedicated to BSE," bseinfo.org, that was registered to NCBA on August 20, 2002 but only "went live" after the Canadian mad cow case was announced, according to PRSA.

As detailed in the Silver Anvil Winners' Profiles, key messages NCBA promoted to the media included "the BSE agent is not found in muscle meat or milk," "the U.S. does not have BSE; an aggressive triple firewall system has prevented the introduction and spread of BSE in the United States," "BSE is not contagious," and "the Harvard University Center for Risk (sic - actually the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis) report concluded, 'BSE is extremely unlikely to become established in the U.S.'"

Signs of the BSE plan's success, according to PRSA, included the maintenance of a high level of consumer confidence in the safety of U.S. beef (more than 85 percent throughout the incident) and the related fact that "retail beef movement over Memorial Day [2003 was] excellent." No mention was made of human or animal health or safety.

Industry Crisis Communications: Responding to Mad Cow in the U.S.

Initial Response

The media coverage of the first confirmed case of mad cow in the United States "was like nothing I had ever seen," said American Meat Institute senior vice-president of public affairs Janet Riley. In a move reminiscent of Britain's Agriculture Minister's 1990 publicity stunt (eating hamburgers with his four year old daughter in front of TV cameras, as the evidence of transmission to humans mounted), "Riley allowed NBC News to come to her home on Christmas Day where she commented on the situation. The NBC crew also taped her preparing beef for dinner in an effort to demonstrate her faith in the safety of the beef supply, although that footage didn't air," according to the January 5, 2004 issue of PR Week.

Government officials provided similar reassurances. On December 23, U.S. Department of Agriculture head Ann Veneman stated, "At this time of year many Americans are making plans for the holidays and for food. We see no need for people to alter those plans or their eating habits or to do anything but have a happy and healthy holiday season. I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner. And we remain confident in the safety of our food supply."[4] Three days later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the media that President Bush "continued to eat beef."[5]

NCBA's associate director of PR, Sara Goodwin, said the major messages in the first few days of the crisis "revolved around the safety of the U.S. beef supply and the extent of efforts underway to track down how the disease reached U.S. shores," PR Week reported.

The Edelman PR firm also "revived a weekly newsletter it had done several years ago called Mad Cow Monitor, looking at media coverage," wrote PR Week. The firm first published the newsletter in February 2001. Mary Earley, director of media analysis at StrategyOne, Edelman's Washington DC research operation, explained that the Mad Cow Monitor was needed because "the intensity of coverage is increasing, and we think it will continue to [do so]."

On a more local level, the main concern in the first week after the announcement was beef sales. The South Dakota Cattlemen's Association quickly raised $1500 to pay for a promotion to give away free "Beef Bucks" coupons worth $5 off beef products sold in certain stores, according to a December 31 Associated Press article. The Wyoming Beef Council "launched a campaign to provide information about mad cow disease to grocery stores, meat counters and restaurants." The Wisconsin Beef Council planned a special advertising or promotional event in early January, reported Associated Press.

Declaring Victory

Just months after the first known case of mad cow disease in the United States, at least some groups were already declaring victory. In April 2004, the executive director of the Washington Beef Commission "share[d] some of the strategies and tactics that guided the industry through the mad cow crisis" with the PRSA's Puget Sound chapter. The chapter promoted the talk as a chance to learn "how Washington's beef industry turned a stampede of negative publicity into an opportunity to educate the public."

That same month, "Kendall Frazier, vice president of public opinion and issues management for the NCBA ... presented a behind-the-scenes look at how the NCBA managed the [Washington mad cow] case and communicated with the media," at a meeting of Colorado PR professionals, according to the August 2004 issue of PRSA's newsletter, Tactics.

"Frazier reported near-record consumer demand for beef and shared research that indicates consumers are confident that U.S. beef is safe. This was a positive outcome to a situation that might have spiraled out of control had it not been for years of planning by NCBA and its partner cattle-industry organizations, the Cattlemen's Beef Board and the U.S. Meat Export Federation," Tactics reported.

Those years of planning were put to use "on December 23, [when NCBA] CEO Terry Stokes received a phone call and learned of the pending BSE announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture"(emphasis added). "After the announcement, the issues management team distributed updated talking points and advisories, and launched a Web site addressing the situation (bseinfo.org). They also developed the following key messages for spokespeople to reinforce in media interviews: U.S. beef is safe; The BSE surveillance system worked; Regaining access to export markets is a priority."

The NCBA "also sought more conventional exposure through marketing, advertising and public relations. It created a Super Bowl radio promotion, purchased more radio ads, increased its retail store displays and distributed editorials to targeted publications ... [and] relied on third-party spokespeople through the Internet," according to Tactics.

Criticism from within the PR Industry

The Holmes Report PR news and analysis website offered a sharp rebuke of the beef industry's mad cow PR efforts: "The industry could have insured itself against devastating market loss relatively simply. ... It could have accepted safety measures that cattle producers in Europe and Japan have found tolerable. It could have gone beyond the bare minimum necessary to protect consumers, and not incidentally, its own reputation. Instead, it chose to fight every new consumer safety measure, so that when the first case of mad cow disease was exposed and vulnerable."[6]

The Holmes Report continued: "The assumption that America should be immune to mad cow disease was born of arrogance." To "win back the confidence of its overseas trading partners," the beef industry must "accept the unthinkable - that strong, strictly enforced regulatory policies are essential to its survival, that its critics knew more about what was best for the industry than its so-called leaders did."

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