As the value of your company grows, so does the responsibility to protect it.

Manage your reputation so ‘gotchas’ don’t get you

Ray Gilmer
United Fresh Produce Association

That was the focus for my visit last week to the Fishers-based New York Apple Association, meeting with the association’s staff, New York growers and representatives from the Ohio and Pennsylvania industries, and watching TV news clips of produce industry spokespeople confronted by reporters practicing “gotcha” journalism.

Jim Allen, president of N.Y. Apple, had invited United Fresh to conduct media training and share a few tips about talking with reporters in the midst of a crisis. Insert your definition of a crisis or otherwise undesirable event here: food safety, labor management, environmental protection, product adulteration, farm accident, etc.

It’s always great to share experiences and insights with industry leaders who are working together to improve their businesses and advance the industry. I’m always grateful for the opportunity, and the trip to the N.Y. Apple offices near Rochester was no exception.

The give-and-take of these training sessions is always invigorating because the participants all recognize that a company’s brand and reputation are often at stake when a crisis hits. Trying to manage a crisis (and your company image) without advance planning rarely comes out well. It’s so much better to prepare in advance.

As we watched the TV clips and silently hoped that kind of misfortune never happened to any of us, I was struck by how much our current media and market environment demands a robust 24/7 approach to reputation management. We live in a time of increasing threats to any company’s name — a near-perfect storm of “gotchas.”

The tougher regulatory environment on things such as food safety, more stringent market expectations on sustainability and social responsibility practices, and an inundation of bloggers, Tweeters and Facebookers, in addition to genuine reporters, all require any company to manage its brand’s reputation like never before.

I’m not kidding about the importance of Internet news. A Pew Research study shows that the news audience for online sources (and that includes nontraditional content providers such as bloggers and Tweeters) is up 17% from 2009 to 2010.

The audience for newspapers, magazines, network TV, cable TV — everything else — is down.

Except for maybe The Packer.

The way I interpret it, this growing Internet news trend means that a lot of the people who are shaping public opinion about the news never went to journalism school or have the benefit of a seasoned editor guiding their work.

For many of us, a recall ranks at the top of the list of potential brand-killing crises because it can cost millions of dollars now, and cost plenty more later in lost sales from diminished brand loyalty, whether justified or not.

Be prepared

To best prepare for a recall, hundreds of produce industry executives, representing all stages of the marketing chain, have participated in United Fresh’s many recall training courses staged across the country in recent years.

This spring, more executives have logged onto United Fresh’s online version of the recall course. It’s remarkable to see the healthy response and dedication from these industry leaders seeking to minimize the threat.

The new Food Safety Modernization Act, passed just a few months ago, sets the stage for a whole new regulatory environment that will most likely change the way your business operates. The new law and the FDA rules that will come with it might serve as a resounding wakeup call for any company that hasn’t yet prepared for managing a food safety incident.

Market forces are at work too, setting the bar higher for how produce industry companies manage their workforce, reduce environmental impact and just generally conduct business in a socially responsible manner. Don’t forget to remain competitive and profitable too while you’re at it.

It’s impressive to see several produce industry companies carving out their own leadership position on these kinds of sustainability and social responsibility attributes. They’re answering a call to go the extra mile and make that part of the value offer to their customers. It’s not a challenge — it’s an opportunity.

The importance of all this is reflected in some of the education topics for the United Fresh convention in May. United’s volunteer leaders, not staff, set the tone for the educational sessions, and they told us they wanted to learn more about social media, social responsibility, innovative branding and other issues that are setting new directions for all of us.

The growers I met with at the N.Y. Apple offices served as just an example of the produce industry leaders who are increasingly focused on managing the complex list of qualities that shape how their companies are valued.

Protect the brand (and often the family) reputation. Get prepared to respond smartly to any threat. Seize the opportunity for building goodwill and leadership on the issues that matter most to your customers.

And check your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Ray Gilmer is vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.