As it happens, I know a little about banking. My father retired as vice president and officer of one of the largest banks in the country, and then, because he loved retail banking, he went to work at a very small local bank as an auditor. He knew banking from the biggest accounts to the smallest, and he wasn’t shy about telling his family what customers should expect from banks, which is efficient, friendly service, perfect accounting, and genuine, honest respect no matter how much or how little money the bank is caretaking for you. I didn’t mention any of this to my bank, however, because playing a family trump card is show-offy. Still, my bank ought to have assumed I’m not ignorant of good banking practices. It should make that assumption about all its customers.
If I had a Twitter account, I would have found it very difficult to resist Tweeting something like, ‘Cust serv @ XYZ Bank sucks! Take yr $$ Lswhere!’ If the bank had had a Facebook page, I would’ve posted a short rant on its Wall. And if I had made such a post or sent such a Tweet, you can bet that a lot more people than just me would be wondering if XYZ Bank is where they want to conduct their banking business. Come to think of it, there’s nothing stopping me from creating my own Facebook page titled “XYZ Bank Sucks.” Maybe I will. Its customer service really did suck, at least as far as my little problem was concerned.
Social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Ning, etc., not to mention the now-ubiquity of YouTube, offer businesses and organizations unprecedented access to personal interactions with customers and potential customers as well as direct, unfiltered feedback. That’s both good news and not so good news for the meat industry, because social media puts a premium on both transparency and customer service. In the world of social media, the squeaky wheels are very squeaky indeed, and they can get a lot of other people very quickly squeaking in sympathy.
But transparency has long been an allusive wish of the industry. Since the first day of my career 30 years ago, and since 100 years before then, industry journalists have called on meat and poultry companies to be more open, forthcoming and, especially, to provide more open access to plant operations. These requests are, to a degree, self-serving: better access means better stories (for readers and advertisers). There’s truth, however, in the point that sharing information makes a stronger industry – the American Meat Institute’s success with certain “non-competitive” issues such as food safety and animal welfare proves so. At the same time, there is truth in the accusation that the industry is being disingenuous when it claims the media never gets a meat story right. It’s difficult to compile facts when a company offers only boilerplate responses or defers calls and requests for information to a trade organization or, most often, refuses to respond altogether.
But it’s no mystery why meat and poultry companies are reluctant to let reporters, microphones and cameras into their plants and executive suites. There’s a lot of blood and guts in even the industry’s best stories. Moreover, the industry sits atop a mountain of messy situations: immigration, environmental issues, animal welfare, labor difficulties, health and diet issues – the pile is high, and that’s not even counting the issues and demands brought to the industry by the financial community. An ill-spoken quote, a photo inadvertently showing a production problem, an inaccurate description of a business deal: suddenly the phone’s ringing with attorneys.
But the high value social media places on transparency adds a new party, the interested consumer, to the old media-industry standoff. The requests from weary old industry reporters like me for meat companies to be more accessible and open have suddenly taken on a new meaning: Smart companies already realize they can’t keep the public’s curiosity at arm’s length any longer, not if they want to avoid Facebook pages named “XYZ Meat Company Sucks.” Smart companies also understand that it’s a mistake to underestimate the knowledge of its customers. The other companies? They should search Facebook and Twitter for references to the firm’s name. They’ll be shocked by what’s out there – and what’s out there, up for grabs, is their reputation.
It’s a new day whether the industry wants it to be or not. Like the bikini, social media makes what a company hides as obvious as what a company shows. Every flaw, every imperfection, everything that can be questioned – it’s all exposed now. The industry’s choice now is whether to deny this is actually happening or to become the kind of industry that’s open, honest and unafraid of the public’s interest in it.