Issues Management: Philosophy, strategies and the future
by Season Solorio, Senior Director, Issues Management – NCBA
It’s the job of the issues management team to protect consumer confidence and strengthen the reputation of the beef industry.
The philosophy of the issues management team is to carry out measured responses without creating negative media coverage or conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.
The majority of people love beef. It is great tasting, versatile, nutritious and a crowd-pleaser. When a consumer is perusing the beef selection at their local grocery store or on the menu at their favorite restaurant, we want them to be thinking about the great steak or hamburger ahead…not about the recall they heard on the news, the "tell-all" documentary their friend insisted they watch or the blog they read that said raising beef is damaging to our health and the planet.
That’s where issues management comes in. Whether it’s responding with reassuring messages when an issue breaks or proactively building relationships and public trust in advance of an issue breaking, it’s the job of the Beef Issues Management program, Funded by The Beef Checkoff, to:
- Protect consumer confidence, and therefore, the marketing climate for beef, by leading unified and effective industry responses to critical issues; and
- Pave the way for demand-driving programs by strengthening the reputation of the beef industry and its farming and ranching members.
Philosophy of issues response
There are more than 1,000 mentions of beef in traditional media and online daily. The Issues Management team monitors these issues; evaluates and analyzes which has the greatest potential to challenge consumer confidence; strategizes the best response strategy; communicates that strategy to stakeholders; and executes the strategy.
The philosophy of the Issues Management team is to carry out measured responses. That means protecting and defending beef interests without creating negative media coverage or conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred. For example, in February 2011, Oprah encouraged her employees to go vegan or vegetarian for 30 days. She then invited Michael Pollan and Kathy Freston, a vegan spiritual advisor, to appear on her show and talk about the results of this challenge and the benefits of eating a meat-free diet. Given Oprah’s history with beef issues, the team knew the industry’s "reaction" to Oprah’s show would be watched closely and could become the focus of additional coverage if we overreacted. We worked closely behind-the-scenes with several high profile influencers such as chefs, healthcare professionals and others who had recently participated in pasture-to-plate tours to prepare them to speak out in support of meat consumption and the way beef is raised today, if necessary. Thankfully, Cargill hosted the show’s producer on a processing plant tour beforehand and the plant manager was included on the in-studio panel, offering balance and valuable perspective. Fortunately, response wasn’t necessary, but the situation reinforced the importance of measured responses. Sometimes the most strategic and effective responses are done behind the scenes and aren’t publicly visible.
Activating our army
While the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor to The Beef Checkoff Program, directly reaches national influencers, such as top-tier media, retailers, healthcare professionals or business leaders, we also have the unique ability to activate a vast network of internal stakeholders to extend the reach of issue resources and messages at the state and local levels. These stakeholders include state beef councils and state affiliates, as well as grassroots farmers and ranchers such as Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) graduates. Given this large network, the team takes seriously the challenge of making sure that internal stakeholders are knowledgeable about the issue at hand and have the resources in order to answer questions, but also do not generate more news or news about the "beef industry’s" reaction.
Why responses look different
One of the keys in issues management is to select the best spokesperson and message in the best venue for the particular issue at hand. Thanks to the resources such as sophisticated media monitoring tools, consumer research insights and strong relationships with academics, researchers, healthcare professionals and other experts, we are able to determine the best message, messenger and communication vehicles for each unique situation. For example, we know through our consumer research insights and media monitoring that, in general, when a particular company’s product or processes are in question, such as in the case of questions around lean finely textured beef (LFTB) or following a recall, the public expects to hear from company representatives. Contrast that with a cattle disease like the fourth U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or concerns about animal treatment or care. In that case, the public expects to hear from the people raising cattle and experts like veterinarians and healthcare professionals.
Veterinarians provide a unique third-party perspective on animal health and consumers believe they are credible in reassuring the public that an animal health issue does not translate into a public health concern. Healthcare professionals provide valuable independent perspective on the science, demonstrating safety or nutritional value. In the case of LFTB, concerns about general safety of LFTB quickly morphed into concerns about nutritional quality for school children. Due to the relationships the Beef Issues Management team had built through the farm tours and leveraging already existing relationships through the checkoff-funded Food and Nutrition Program, we worked to identify a few healthcare professionals who were experts in the area of childhood nutrition and could credibly speak to the importance of lean protein as part of a child’s healthy diet. Government officials are also an important part of the dialogue and when it comes to food, consumers expect reassurance from government officials as to what they’re doing to ensure a safe food supply.
Thanks to sophisticated traditional, broadcast and social media monitoring tools, the Issues Management team can see how an issue is trending and where and target our response. For example, when conversations about the fourth case of BSE started on Twitter, the team knew that particular social media outlet would be key to response and therefore, immediately secured a dedicated handle (@BSEInfo) and provided our spokespeople with sample tweets (140 character “texts” on Twitter) . Significant checkoff-funded consumer research also provides important insight into how to best communicate with consumers, from who they find most credible, which messages are most reassuring and where they can look for information on different issues.
The future of issues management
With the issues environment constantly evolving and changing, the Beef Issues Management team is constantly monitoring the environment to identify new issues on the horizon and building the resources that can help the industry respond to these issues. Today, issues and crisis response experts recognize the importance of a foundational response structure, like cross-functional issues or crisis response teams, clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, contact management systems and resources are the keys to successful issues and crisis management. Since every issue varies widely—an E. coli recall can begin with a single illness or an in-store test with no related illnesses—having a clear process in place and a response team with defined roles and responsibilities is the one constant in any situation.
It’s also important to keep an eye on emerging threats, which is why vulnerabilities need to be regularly reviewed and updated—what might have been a vulnerability two years ago may no longer be a threat. The Beef Issues Management team is in the process of developing a survey that will be distributed broadly throughout the beef industry to look at the current environment and identify what other issues could be coming down the road and continuously prepare. Tools and resources such as fact sheets, talking points, and spokespeople are things that can be developed in advance. With the increased use of social media, the Beef Issues Management team is currently building a new “issues aggregator” website that will help directly rebut “myths” such as LFTB, the environmental impact of beef or the health study of the day and give media, engaged consumers and others a one-stop destination where they can find a variety of resources on these myths. A new Twitter handle, @BeefFacts, was recently launched and will drive traffic to this new website.
Ultimately, any successful issues management program must work to build long-term, proactive relationships. There will always be day-to-day issues that arise. In many ways, this is why the Beef Issues Management program was created—to help farmers and ranchers fight back against threats to their success, such as anti-beef activists trying to convert the population to vegetarianism. However, consumer research conducted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance shows agriculture needs to build trust in the way we raise food today. Americans trust farmers and ranchers—the people who raise food—but they don’t trust farming and ranching practices—or the way food is raised and grown. This plays out in the marketplace in the form of "Meatless Mondays" programs implemented by major companies like Sodexo, school foodservice directors deciding not to purchase LFTB or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) signing up to "partner" with the Center for Science in the Public Interest on Food Day. These are normally reasonable and influential organizations and institutions. Publicly responding to their actions won’t necessarily change their mindset. Though we’ll continue to respond to these issues as they arise, building longer term relationships with the people who are driving these decisions, by taking them on pasture-to-plate tours, may cause them to rethink their approach to beef and have a positive impact on future decisions about beef.