[INTERVIEW] Social Media's Threats and Opportunities for Agribusiness - World Nutrition Forum 2016

Adrian Moss, Managing Director, Focus Business CommunicationsDuring the BIOMIN World Nutrition Forum 2016 in Vancouver, Canada, last week, Moss spoke about the value and risks of online communities in the Social Media Era. Citizen journalism, Web 2.0, online reviews, comments and social communities have changed many industries forever. “The feed and livestock industry is no exception”, he said.

[Feedinfo News Service] Mr. Moss, is it fair to say that most food safety organizations across the EU tend to rely on traditional broadcast and print media?

[Adrian Moss] That is a fair comment. We did find that at the start of the FoodRisC project a few years ago neither the European nor national food safety agencies had much presence in social media and certainly did not use it as part of their communication toolkit. However, during the period of our research and regular meetings with them we saw changes. The speed of that change has varied across countries for many reasons – some cultural, some organisational and some due to their local remits. Even today some organisations are still not entirely comfortable engaging with online and social media communities. Dealing with traditional media is something they know and understand. Changing such engrained habits takes time.

[Feedinfo News Service] The feed and livestock industry is becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities and threats posed by social media. But how can the awareness process go faster?

[Adrian Moss] Social media is still developing rapidly most recently driven by mobile internet connection via smartphones and tablets. Some estimates indicate that a third of everyone connected to the internet is now active in social media. We are now seeing the first of the so called ‘social natives’ entering employment. These are young people who have grown up with social media as part of their everyday lives. They are not learning about it– they are living with it. My first bit of advice is to be totally open minded and watch what younger people are doing and ensure their voices can be heard within your organisation. They are your future employees and customers. Social media is best learnt by participation and practice. Finally, those at the ‘farm’ end of the ‘farm-to-fork’ industry are especially important to the public. Research has shown food is the number one blogging topic in most countries. Taking pictures of food ranks high in terms of image blogs too. Using social media you can explain your story cost effectively. A good example are the Peterson Brothers who are farmers in the US. They have used social media highly effectively to help demystify farming, explain their world and articulate how they care about farm practices as ‘they eat what they grow’. With many millions of hits on YouTube, hundreds of thousands of Facebook likes, they have understood how to use social media to build and develop an online community and from that create a new business opportunities.

[Feedinfo News Service] What is your main advice to companies in the industry seeking to develop relationships with online communities and seeking how to deal with online crisis management situations? How do you overcome the "trust hurdle"?

[Adrian Moss] Trust can only develop through online communities knowing what you are doing and why. You have to tell your story honestly and openly. Help to educate the public about your work and share your vision and your progress. Use the resources of your organisation to share the workload of creating, managing and maintaining your social media accounts and participating or creating online communities. Create a Social Media and Online Community Strategy document that interfaces to and supports your business goals and activities. Do not leave it to just the PR and Marketing teams. Having such a team approach also has benefits in terms of employee engagement and motivation. Provide training and ongoing support to all staff and have PR and HR work in partnership. Remember not everyone externally will agree with what you are saying and doing. Do not block, ban or censor 3rd party comments. Accept their right to say negative things publicly and on your social media accounts. Respond factually to negative and positive comments and leave people to judge for themselves. Do not get into an argument or belittle people and their views. Publish ‘house rules’ where you state what is unacceptable content such as bad language, racial slurs etc. By all means ‘censor’ posts that break these rules but always explain what ‘house rule’ they have broken so people do not assume you have removed just a ‘negative comment’ that you do not like.

Trust will take time to develop and is precious and so should be managed carefully. Its true value is to be found during a crisis. Having an established group of ‘followers’ and ’friends’ on social media before a crisis, and then being seen to be doing the right thing to fix an issue, will help you reduce the risk of negative comments and their impact than if you had no presence at all. It is not uncommon to see ‘friends/followers’ defend organisations online where they feel that the criticism is unfair. In the end the ‘trust hurdle’ can only overcome by dialogue and engagement.

[Feedinfo News Service] Which public communication lessons have been learned from the "Pink Slime" crisis in 2012 and the "Horsemeat" scandal in 2013?

[Adrian Moss] ‘Pink Slime’ was the result of something that is quite common with organisations not selling direct to the consumer. They do not see the public as a direction communication target. B2B organisations often see little or no added value of dealing with them directly so do not bother developing a relationship with them. The mistake they make in doing this is that their business customers may well be concerned about public perception of themselves and their products or services. This is what happened to the organisations supplying Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB or so called ‘Pink Slime’). What was a well-established and laudable process to reduce food waste gained a negative perception as a low cost way to add to 100% pure meat. Through a combination of social and traditional media a virtual ‘firestorm’ resulted. Members of the public demanded supermarkets, food outlets and schools stop using the products or face a consumer boycott. The suppliers used traditional media, press releases and conferences to argue their case but within just a few weeks customers cancelled orders to avoid consumer boycotts. The big lesson– if your product or service finds its way to the public – even indirectly you should consider engaging with them via social media. You should also monitor what is being said on social media about you, your competitors and your industry. After all you may be unfairly caught up due to the actions/inactions of others. You also need a Crisis Management Response Plan and be ready to implement it and not make it up on the go. A fast response is critical in social media.

The ‘horsemeat scandal’ was in some ways a repeat of ‘Pink Slime’. Horsemeat was being used to ‘bulk’ up beef so increasing profits as it was sold as 100% pure. The public perception was that while the various Food Safety Authorities had failed it was the retailers who had committed a greater wrong by the perception that they mislabelled the ingredients or they put profits before their duty to protect the public. What was initially seen as rather funny (provoking lots of jokes by the public) quickly turned negative when a major retailer joined in with the jokes. The retailer received a backlash when people question their lack of commitment to food safety and quality versus its pursuit of profit. That was no laughing matter. Although other countries were impacted to a certain extend the issue was mitigated as some of those had the culture of eating horsemeat. In the UK, Ireland and other countries, where there was no tradition of eating horsemeat, and horses were pets there was added indignation. A number of unaffected retailers highlighted their systems and processes which protected their customers from supply chain issues such as this. Retailers who put a focus on quality by managed supply chains saw sales remain strong. Independent butchers also saw increased sales. Those with perceived weaker screening, management and vetting suffered.

The lessons here are to remain extremely cautious about humour being misconstrued. Much better to stay factual. Also monitoring social media sentiment can highlight when sentiment turns negative so it can be quickly responded to. Another consideration is to always deploy your senior executives quickly to apologise for any issues even if to say you will look into it. Letting junior members of staff deal with all the crisis (or worse blaming them for the issue in the first place or their poor response) can appear as if management is avoiding taking leadership. Better to take the initiative rather than hold back and risk appearing evasive or struggling to get on top of the issue. Having a Crisis Management Plan prepared and practiced can save time and potential damage to reputation.

[Feedinfo News Service] What must companies in the feed and livestock industry take into account when it comes to "creating their messages" for online communities?

[Adrian Moss] It is fair to say that in many societies the public is more disconnected from the ‘farm’ than at any time in the recent past. For many members of the public they have little understanding of what is involved in the feed and livestock industry except what they read and hear from traditional and social media sources. Open Farm Sunday in the UK is an annual event organised by Leaf (Linking Environment and Farming). The idea is to ensure that people can meet and talk to farmers at their place of work and understand more about what they do and how they do it. Whilst large numbers of people attend the event it only happens one Sunday each year. And as can be seen from the Peterson Brothers in the USA you can create a large and active following by helping to inform, educate and entertain an audience using social media.

Some social media communities display a powerful negative attitude to agri-business. Active groups within these communities are able to mobilise online and physical protests very rapidly. As we saw from our research during FoodRisC information can move quickly and widely and remain visible for a considerable period of time. This is the so called ‘echo chamber’ effect. Even today type in the search term ‘Irish pork safety’ or ‘Irish pork health’ into Google and you will see references to the 2008 dioxin contamination still dominate the top 10 articles. Part of the outcome of the FoodRisC project was to create an online toolkit. This covers the key essential areas an organisation should consider when participating in social media and hence being able to get early awareness to a developing crisis and more importantly build up a following before a crisis occurs. This is invaluable when needing to respond quickly to an emerging crisis. Participating in these online conversations establish your presence and helps build rapport with the audience which in turn helps trust develop. No presence on social media results in silence which can be perceived as indicating you have something to hide.

This interview was first published on www.feedinfo.com.