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Crisis Communication

When You're Suddenly at Odds with Local and Federal Regulators

An Award Winning Project


Methodology
At Schweitzer Consulting, we understand that each client and situation is unique. We partner with our clients, combining their industry knowledge with our marketing expertise, to develop solutions that help navigate through unexpected turbulence.

This case study is one example of our recommended response to the crisis. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we would take this approach again. There is no cookie-cutter method in dealing with a crisis.

Schweitzer Consulting, LLC helps companies create crisis plans so they are not inventing the wheel in the midst of a real crisis. This case study profiles a client without a crisis plan and demonstrates the type of counsel given while in the thick of it.

Background
Hawaii consumes more than 1.2 million pounds of poke each year. It is a local favorite that fuels a thriving industry. The client in this case study, whose name has been purposely omitted, is a successful, food wholesaler which had never interacted with the media. This company had quietly and diligently built a reputable business with 20 years of hard work, but was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in the course of conducting its regular business.

The wholesaler received a shipment of frozen yellowfin tuna from its long-time California-based supplier. As usual, the wholesaler distributed the product. But this shipment was unlike any of the previous shipments. It later tested positive for Salmonella.

The news was leaked to the media by a vocal environmental group opposed to imported seafood. Overnight, this company stood to lose its reputation simply because it unknowingly received a bad shipment of tuna. The mainland supplier had always been reliable in the past, and this was the first time the client had encountered such a situation.

Challenge
The media caught the client off guard. When the story aired that evening, the FDA and Department of Health (DOH) were caught off guard as well, but it was the client who stood to lose the most unless a quick and appropriate response was initiated. Without any previous public relations experience or council, the client contacted Schweitzer Consulting as the pressure to issue the press release began to mount.

After reviewing the type of bacteria, which was weak enough that the DOH opted not to issue a public alert of its own, we recommended a voluntary recall of the product. The FDA urged the client to issue a preapproved press release template to announce the voluntary recall. The wording of the template cast the client in a negative light, leaving the impression that the client knowingly distributed a bad product.

Case Research
Because the company did not directly interact with the public, it lacked tools such as a website and logo. Adding to the challenge was the immense time sensitivity and public health concern. Starting completely from scratch, the important issues of the case were uncovered:

  • How serious was the health threat? From all reports, mild. DOH reported a cluster of illnesses several months earlier, but had not found them serious enough to issue a public warning. The environmental group had learned DOH traced the source of the Salmonella to the client’s company, which prompted the group to contact the media.

  • What, specifically, had the client done wrong? Nothing. The company simply imported and distributed a parcel of frozen tuna – just as it had done for the past 20 years. The parcel originated in Indonesia, cleared border inspections and was shipped to the client’s California distributor before arriving in Hawaii.

  • What was the environmental organization’s agenda? Schweitzer Consulting contacted the group’s leader to determine just that. It turned out this was a watchdog group that monitored government, the environment and public health. It was a staunch supporter of locally caught seafood and tipped off the media when it found fault with imported products. It was highly organized, gave regular media interviews and was known to picket retail stores that sell imported seafood.

  • Was the client required to use the FDA’s template? The client believed so, but Schweitzer Consulting's review of the FDA's recall manual revealed that the client could issue its own media statement. This became a pivotal finding.

Strategic Insight
With the clock ticking, a two-pronged plan was launched. First, the client would remove all questionable product from the food supply within 24 hours; then, Schweitzer Consulting would craft a self-authored (not FDA-authored) announcement of the voluntary recall and full removal of the product. Since poke is consumed immediately after purchase, we did not have to worry about product re-emerging after being removed and quarantined.

During the product removal, the client firmed up customer relationships with a face-to-face campaign:

  • The client focused exclusively on an aggressive plan to remove all questionable product (nearly 5,000 pounds) within 24 hours. The client personally visited all of its customers to ensure proper removal.
  • PR counsel held off the FDA, fielded media calls (promising a statement by 6 pm), drafted the statement and stayed in touch with the environmental group to assess its concerns.
  • A press release authored by Schweitzer Consulting, not the FDA, was released in time for the 6 pm news.
Result
By announcing a voluntary recall concurrently with the product's safe removal, the client protected public health as well as its good reputation. Additionally, reaching out to the environmental group created an unexpected benefit. The group issued a release praising the client for its quick response and for taking charge of the situation.

To appease the FDA, the client issued their template release as well. By then, the story had cycled out of the news and no local media covered it. The client emerged without losing a single customer and its reputation was unharmed.


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Hawaii's Better Business Bureau:
Schweitzer Consulting - 2012 Torch Award

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