At the recent Alberta Beef Producers AGM, the XL Foods E. coli fiasco was a prominent topic both inside and outside the meeting room. There was considerable frustration expressed by ABP officials of their inability to get the urban media to present the cattle industry’s perspective of the unfolding events over the month-long period.
Apparently numerous interviews were carried out and many media phone calls were fielded by the ABP, yet the cattle industry appeared conspicuous by its absence in the public discussions and media. This caused so much consternation within the organization that it was decided to send a letter to producers on the ABP mailing list to inform them that despite the lack of media appearances, the ABP had done everything possible to advance the industry’s position on the issue.
The problem seemed to be the urban media and their perceived lack of understanding of the cattle industry. Well that’s true to a point, but two other matters were at play here that caused the city media to seemingly ignore the cattle industry interest in the E. coli issue.
First, the issue involved beef, not cattle which made it very different from the BSE crisis. Urban media folks made the link between getting sick from eating a steak to a retail store to a processing plant. Linking it further to feedlots and cattle ranchers was something they couldn’t grasp or was just unnecessarily complicating the issue with no headline benefit. The latter is really key to why the cattle industry was out of the PR loop with the urban and national media.
The cattle industry spokespeople didn’t give the city media the necessary “headline candy” to get their attention. That approach is needed when you are a third party to the issue and not directly involved. Media reporters were not interested in carefully phrased responses from the industry. Sure that’s a safe approach, but it doesn’t generate sensational headlines and 10-second TV news clips, which is the first order of business for city media.
The PR reality is that cautious reaction gets you ignored. Bold action (real or imagined) gets you media attention. That last point is well understood by most lobby groups.
On the other hand perhaps the cattle industry should be thankful they were ignored by the urban media in this incident. Whenever your product is linked to poisoning, disease and possible death it’s tough to spin a positive response and it may just lead to even more unwanted revelations. In this case maybe the cattle industry dodged a bad PR bullet, let’s hope that luck continues because incidents like this are sure to happen again.