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As Spinach Recall Widens, Experts Ask Natural Selection Foods To Develop A Blog; Is This The Right Strategy?
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers that people in numerous states had become sickened when they ate spinach contaminated by E. coli bacteria.  Currently, 109 people in more than 15 states have become sickened and one person has died because of the outbreak. 

After consulting with the FDA, Natural Selection Foods decided to voluntarily recall all of its products containing spinach with “best if used dates” from August 17 through October 1.  Today, the New York Times reported that a second company, River Ranch Fresh Foods has decided to recall all products containing spinach obtained from Natural Selection Foods. 
Social Media Experts Offer Advice

Today, prominent social media experts, Steve Rubel and B.L. Ochman urged companies affected by the recall to develop blogs so that they can proactively communicate with the public.  Ochman said:

“The Center[s] for Disease Control [CDC] says that the tainted spinach appears to be grown by Natural Selection Foods LLC, the world's largest producer of organic produce. The company's home page communication lacks the main component that distinguishes the new age of corporate communication from pre-Cluetrain corporate-speak - a human voice.

The company needs to immediately set up a blog with constantly updated information and an action log. A top executive needs to express their extreme concern for the health of the people who've been sickened, and become a reassuring spokesperson.”

(It is important to note that neither the CDC or FDA have identified Natural Selection Foods as the sole source of the E. coli outbreak.  According to the Associated Press: “Federal officials stressed that the bacteria had not been isolated in products sold by Natural Selection. As the investigation continues, other brands may be implicated.” See this Website for information from the CDC and this Web page for news from the FDA.)

Steve Rubel had this to say:

“It seems to me that a situation like this is the perfect time to roll a blog - provided that you plan for it ahead of time. In the past I offered some advice on how to go about this. In the future I bet we'll see real-time issue blogs or vlogs updating us minute-by-minute on situations like these. It will give the public a place to voice their concerns and ask questions.”

In addition, Rubel reports that Dole has proactively started taking out advertisements that appear prominently in online searches for information about the E. coli outbreak.  In a statement on its Website, Dole says that it “supports the voluntary recall” of Natural Selection Foods’ products and is “terribly saddened by these recent events.”

Is Starting A Blog A Good Communications Strategy For Natural Selection Foods?

Clearly, Dole recognizes that during a crisis, one of the first places people turn for information is the Internet.  They are concerned about whether they can eat spinach – especially because children and the elderly are at the most risk. 

It would be great if Natural Selection Foods had a blog in place.  However, I hesitate to say that they should start one in this instance.  I am leery because the company may not be prepared to handle the numerous customer relations and legal issues associated with blogging about the outbreak, including: 
- It Could Be Sued:  There is a very real possibility that Natural Selection Foods could be taken to court by people who were sickened or had family members die because of tainted spinach.  If the company were to start a blog and (prematurely) take responsibility for the outbreak, it runs the risk of exposing itself to liability and damages if it were sued.

- It Could Provide Incorrect Information:  This is a fast-moving story and the FDA and CDC have been careful to say that they are still attempting to identify the source of the outbreak.  In fact, these agencies are asking people to stop eating all fresh grown spinach – not just produce grown by Natural Selection Foods.  Clearly, we will likely learn a lot more in the coming days about this developing situation. 

Natural Selection Foods understands that has to tread very carefully.  Given this, I’m not sure if starting a crisis blog is the right strategy if they have not considered all of the risks and benefits of this communications medium.  Starting a blog requires careful planning.  Among other things, the company has to figure out how they will respond to angry comments from customers and how to shield themselves from liability

Ochman is absolutely right that Natural Selection Foods should be more proactive about addressing concerns about the outbreak.  Their brand and future profits are at stake.  Some methods the communications team might want to consider to help it communicate more effectively, include:

- Take out text advertisements on major search engines like Dole is doing

- Develop a video and post it on their Website and major services like YouTube outlining how they are addressing the problem.  The video will hopefully be viewed and passed on by others.

- Develop a podcast series that provides updates on what the company is doing to investigate the cause of the outbreak and cooperate with government agencies.  These podcasts can be carefully vetted and the company can decide whether to solicit listener feedback

- Reach out to prominent bloggers and provide them with information about their efforts.  This will help them reach opinion leaders and those searching online for information about the outbreak.

This example illustrates why companies are hesitant to use blogs during a crisis.  It is difficult to control content and keep up with a fast-moving situation. This strategy could be a successful -- but only if planned for carefully.  If a blog is not an option, there are other social media tools that provide companies with a greater degree of content ownership, but still allow them to engage their audiences. 

Overall, this is a very difficult situation and I wish Natural Selection Foods, the FDA and the CDC the best in containing this outbreak and protecting the public from E. coli in the future.  

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