News of a crisis involving the H1N1 virus – "swine flu," of course – seemed to come out of nowhere. Yet within seeming minutes of the first headlines generated by scores of illnesses and a handful of deaths in Mexico attributed to the virus, every news and broadcast organization in the world was trying to connect dots from pigs to humans to disease. Science on the ground was thin, speculation on social network sites on the Internet was double-thick. And over the days following those first headlines, with the situation folding and unfolding again and again like origami, the e-speculation continued to outpace official pronouncements, cautions and facts.
Welcome to the meat industry’s first crisis in a Twitter-ized world.
Over the years, the industry’s organizations and associations have developed an often effective media strategy utilizing press statements, conference calls, press releases and even YouTube to counter myths and misinterpretations and to provide information and comment in difficult situations such as last year’s Hallmark-Westland animal-abuse debacle. But even a scandal that occurred as recently as 2008 feels as if proceeded at a stately pace compared to the supersonic speed with which rumors, gossip and, sometimes, actual news spreads around the globe via "tweets" on Twitter, messages on Facebook and e-mail. In such a fast-paced environment, how can the industry hope to keep up?
"The H1N1 outbreak really occurred at the heart of a media revolution – where we are seeing more newspapers move online and consumers receiving news and conversing on social media internet sites. And considering that this flu outbreak was being introduced to the public under a name that was not only misleading, but directly harmful to the food industry, this posed a real challenge to us: How do we correct misinformation in a headline or storyline and get the valid information into the hands of consumers?," wrote Tom Super, who directs the American Meat Institute’s media outreach program, in an e-mail to MEAPOULTRY.com.
He pointed out that the social Web sites allow the industry to become part of an online conversation rather than simply reactive to it. "People conversing about the issue, whether in person or online, is the first step to actually getting the facts, learning how to protect yourself and sorting out between fact and fiction," he e-mailed. "We saw a lot of misinformation about H1N1 being spread on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook that initially helped stoke unnecessary fear about the consumption of U.S. pork products.
"Of course, social media sites aren’t only to blame to for spreading hype and sometimes misinformation about an event or story," he added. "Television news stations and newspapers, while not intentionally misleading the public, often sensationalize headlines."
Jeremy Russell, director of communications for the National Meat Association, says he is an active user of various social-networking sites and points out a key difference between sites such as Twitter and Facebook and straight e-mail, which can also spread information with lightening speed: "Twitter is built around a subscription-based broadcast model and provides an interface for comments. That makes it more public (or it can be, depending on your settings). But, because of this broadcast model, plenty of people 'tweet' without much of an audience. In any case," he notes, "I suspect more people learned about swine flu via cable news than any other medium."
Robert Cogan is assistant director of communication at the National Pork Producers Council and created NPPC’s Twitter and Facebook pages. He e-mailed MEATPOULTRY.com that as the H1N1 situation began to draw in the pork industry, he posted "reassuring messages and press releases and links to positive news stories every chance we could." These are updated as often as possible, sometimes repetitively. "For instance we twittered ‘Pork is safe to eat’ a handful of times last week, after posting a link to a USDA press release where Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack reiterates our message. It’s just basically putting out the good news as soon as you can and getting folks to ‘add you’ to the people they are ‘following’ to get updates."
He added: "I can tell you that our usage of Twitter has been paying off. Not only are dozens of senators, members of Congress and scores of media following what we post, but we’ve gotten some great press out of it." Between Facebook and Twitter, he noted, "I’ll tell you that Twitter has by far the most impact. When I send out a press release, within seconds I post it to our Twitter page for all to see. This in turn is how they have been picked up by certain media outlets we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to."
AMI has also created a Twitter page, for its affiliated National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, and a Facebook page. "Through these sites, we are able to link back to our important messages on the meatsafety.org Web site and AMI’s YouTube MeatNewsNetwork," wrote Super. AMI also uses its Twitter and Facebook presence to direct consumers and the media "to key information from established medical authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization and credible government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. This is one way that people can sort through all of the noise and receive official government information directly. We’ve used Twitter’s ‘hashtags’ to hone in on H1N1 discussions."
Meat associations are hardly the only food-interested groups with Twitter and Facebook pages. Virtually all of the major food trade associations and consumer organizations make use of these so-called "Web 2.0" opportunities for information distribution. According to Super, USDA’s National Agricultural Library and Farm Service Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and more than 123 members of Congress all use Twitter.Even MEAT&POULTRY has gotten on the bandwagon (follow M&P at: http://twitter.com/MEATPOULTRY)
But NMA’s Russell told MEATPOULTRY.com that use of Twitter and Facebook isn’t yet common among individual meat companies. "Even blogs are rare," he noted.
Super calls social media "simply another tool in our communications tool box. It is supplemental to our on-going public affairs campaigns but in a way that is more direct to the consumer, which reflects the cyclical nature of the Web and the immediacy of today’s news cycle." But based on recent polling, AMI is confident, he wrote MEATPOULTRY.com, "that these efforts have helped bolster consumer confidence in pork to over 90 percent, sort out fact and fiction and calm some of the initial hysteria. Instead of using social media to spread fear, we’ve utilized it to spread the science."