In early January the CDC and FDA warned of salmonella in peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America, a peanut plant located in GA. One of my clients, the Academic Network, jumped into action once early indicators began to surface.
(They’re a Stericycle company, whose job it is to help manage recalled peanut and peanut paste products by getting them out of stores and destroying them.)
The Academic Network’s role is to provide health care professionals to help answer questions about product recalls, and provide the social media “listening” services necessary to help companies anticipate product recall issues.
I set up the listening systems for them, and help monitor them during crises like this, the largest food recall in history.
Anticipating Risks to Mitigate Them
We started monitoring the web (Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites) for conversations about peanuts, and the experience was quite amazing.
- We were able to predict the spread of the recall from people to pet food - days before any announcement
- We predicted the spread of fear from peanut products to peanut butter in jars weeks before peanut butter jar sales dropped off by 25%
- We reached out to associations (like the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and the American Peanut Council) to help them handle the huge job of getting the right information out to people online. No one listened.
- People talk about peanut butter online a lot (probably second only to bacon) and we watched the hysteria grow exponentially the day after the inauguration, when Tweets and posts like this appeared:
…and it really hasn’t stopped. Victims of the peanut recall are not only the poor unfortunate souls, families and pets who ate the tainted stuff; but the businesses who are losing millions in sales of perfectly good products.
Traditional Response Fell on Deaf Ears - While Hysteria Grew
As the fear of peanuts, peanut paste and peanut butter spread in that first few weeks, no one from the food industry proactively reached out to consumers online. If they did, I didn’t see it.
Oh, sure, there were press releases announcing that products were safe, but unless you were subscribing via RSS to certain key phrases, they were falling on relatively deaf ears - as evidenced by the falling sales of peanut butter products of all kinds.
Apparently the food industry (and those who represent them) are glacially slow in their platforms and processes; and were unable to react to the needs of consumers and deliver information in the right channels of communication.
Meanwhile, Online…Â People Reached Out to Help
From the beginning, the confusion was mitigated slightly when news reporters, bloggers, Tweeters and others shared links to the FDA site where, (weeks later) they’ve finally added search capability to help navigate the growing list of tainted products.
In a highly unusual - and I’ll bet expensive - move, today you’ll see ads and coupons in papers across the country from companies like ConAgra and Smuckers attempting to tell consumers their products are safe. That’s one way to try to recoup confidence in products.
And I’m finally seeing Google ads from providers - not just trial lawyers - on peanut butter searches:
Learning Our Lessons - Stopping the Spread of Fear
What should we do next time? (And there will be a next time, just change the food source and product…)
- Association sponsorship of a social web site dedicated to quelling the myths around recalled products, staffed by nutritionists, nurses and doctors - why not? It takes no time to put one up - if you know what you’re doing. And you can answer questions in near-real time. Imagine the resource that would be to consumers.
- Point searchers to it using PPC advertisements - engage search behavior to spread the word
- Mobilize the millions of social media connectors to get the word out - give us good information, and we’re delighted to help out
One of the pictures (and I love pictures) I’m most proud of during this mess is this one, from Google Insights:
See the regional interest in the recall? The Portland-based team supporting the Academic Network’s efforts has been highly engaged - and it shows.
I just hope next time we’ll have some industry partners interested in hearing how they might leverage the knowledge we’ve gained from this terrible scare much earlier in the process.
I’m sure there would have been millions of dollars in savings, much less hysteria, and (perhaps even) lives saved as a result.