“Crisis is not a competitive advantage.” That was one of the key messages (and more pointed ones) to pet food and feed companies delivered by Hinda Mitchell, president of Inspire PR Group, during the 2019 Feed and Pet Food Conference, held September 30-October 2 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

Another: Pet food and feed brands sometimes inadvertently make the job of activists and others with an agenda easier by spreading their messages, rather than just letting them fade, and using some of their negative, uninformed articles or videos against competitors. “We may not like their narrative, but we sure have helped carry it,” Mitchell commented.

Tell your story, focusing on your people

Mitchell’s presentation at the conference, which was organized and hosted by the Pet Food Institute (PFI) and National Grain and Feed Association, was about transparency and crisis management. (In the name of transparency: PFI is one of her company’s clients.) Thus, while making her point about not helping activists spread their agenda, she also presented the other side: not letting a negative message or situation go viral.

It’s a fine balance; according to Mitchell, one way to approach it is to ask yourself a question: “What are we hiding?”

“We're feeding a lot of animals and people, and that's a great story to tell,” she explained. “People trust what they know, and don't distinguish company from company or plant from plant, so tell your story.” Examples she gave included talking about how much your company and its people care and love pets, and how you ensure you make pet food or treats responsibly and safely. “Focus on your people,” she said. “It’s lot easier to like a person than a company.

“If you don't tell your story, someone else will jump in and tell it for you,” Mitchell added. “And you probably won't like what they say.” I think many pet food companies can relate to that.

Tips for transparency and crisis management

Transparency can help a brand in many ways, including building trust and defining your brand and company on your own terms. It also establishes your foundation and a bank of goodwill that you can draw on if and when crisis strikes.

But, the real question is, how can a brand or company be transparent? First, understand that transparency needs to be a conversation, Mitchell said, not just one-way communications you push out. “Social media posts are fine, but do you ever respond to questions or comments, even tough ones?” Other communication channels to consider include videos and newer ones like animation.

In terms of the message, whether through your own communications or in responding to a question or comment, she advised being “intentional and proactive” and answering these questions: Who are you? How do you do what you do? What safeguards are in your process? What if something goes wrong?

As for the latter question, the best way to handle a crisis is to get in front of concerns, consistently and deliberately. “Transparency doesn't mean you have to share more than what is appropriate,” Mitchell said, but you do need to get ahead of the situation. Perceptions are formed very quickly, she explained. You need to be very early to the conversation; and real-time response on social media is key.

Advance planning is a crisis management concept that far pre-dates social media. Mitchell shared a quote by Ezra Benson, a farmer and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Dwight Eisenhower: “It’s better to prepare and prevent than to repair and repent.”

Above all, the key points to address in responding to a crisis are:

  • What happened?
  • What did you do about it, or what will you?

Pet food transparency: Uncomfortable but good for business

When done right, transparency is uncomfortable, Mitchell acknowledged. Though some consumers used to believe that ignorance is bliss, that perception is changing. Today, transparency generates more questions, and people in your organization (including you) may be uncomfortable with it and think you’re just “feeding the beast.”

Yet, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, transparency is important because issues that consumers and your customers care about and expect you to address aren’t going way, nor are your critics. “Our critics are evolving; are you?” Mitchell challenged the audience.

Besides leading crisis response, the bottom line is that transparency is simply good for business, she said.

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dphillips@wattglobal.com