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Best Practices: What to Do When Food Activists Come Calling

Experts Warn Not to Stay Silent, But Keep Response Proportional

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The 'Food Babe' recently targeted Big Beer.
The 'Food Babe' recently targeted Big Beer.

Processed-food companies are on the defensive like never before, repeatedly under attack from health advocates and activists who have made the industry Public Enemy No. 1. The threats are numerous, ranging from social-media empowered food bloggers like the "Food Babe" to established groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose well-organized campaigns often grab the attention of mass-media outlets.

"Packaged-food companies have always needed to respond to broad-based changes in consumer preferences, which can shift surprisingly quickly," Sanford C. Bernstein noted in a recent report. "However, social networking tools and digital media have created the opportunity for groups of consumer advocates to target individual brands in order to influence company decisions — and such campaigns seem to be on the rise."

The report, which stated that activism creates "risks" for the packaged food sector, cited multiple company moves that were influenced by activism. Cases include General Mills' recent decision to make original Cheerios free of genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs, and Campbell Soup Co.'s commitment to removing Bisphenol A, or BPA, from can linings in response to health concerns raised by groups including the Breast Cancer Fund.

More recently, the aforementioned "Food Babe," whose real name is Vani Hari, used her internet bully pulpit to get big brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev to list beer ingredients online even though they don't have to according to food laws.

A-B InBev responded quickly, even though some of Ms. Hari's claims were refuted by science bloggers. It raises the question: Should companies respond to every single threat? And how? Ad Age recently caught up with food marketing and public relations experts to get some advice. Here are five response tips:

It is Better to Respond Than to Ignore
"No accusation about the safety of your product should go unchallenged," Karen Doyne, the leader of Burson-Marsteller's crisis practice, said in an email. That is because the information will live online and "will be searched and accessed by others, so your story needs to be on the record," she said. She also advised brands to put "colloquial information in easily-shared bites via videos, infographics and other tools." It used to be that PR pros counseled companies not to "break into jail," meaning that responding might bring more attention to an issue. But those days are over, said Kim Essex, director of the North American food practice for Ketchum. "What we are telling our clients is 'Don't let the conversation pass you by, be part of the conversation,'" she said.

When Responding, Be Prepared
"You have to evaluate the claim or potential criticism and have clear justification or rationale to support whatever position you take," said Rick Shea, a former packaged-food marketing executive and president of Shea Marketing. For instance, a recent report by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab accused children's cereal brands of positioning the eyeballs of characters to look directly at kids as a marketing ploy. General Mills responded with its own report showing that the Trix Rabbit looked in multiple directions on different box varieties. Still, brands should be careful about personally attacking critics or minimizing their arguments because "like it or not, they may have more credibility with the public on these issues than your company does, and what's more, they don't have to play by the same rules of accuracy or ethics you do," Ms. Doyne said.

Be Proactive
The best way to be prepared is to be proactive. Ms. Essex advocates a "breadcrumb strategy," meaning food brands should make it easy for consumers to find online as much information as possible about ingredients and processes, even before activists raise questions. Making "information findable right now is so important," she said. "Because once somebody grabs onto a topic and there is no information available, they fill the void with a lot of misinformation." One example: A biotech industry trade group runs a website called gmoanswers.com that allows users to easily input questions, while encouraging them to "be skeptical" and "be open."

Keep It Proportional
Ms. Doyne said "the majority of unjustified, activist-generated attacks actually have very limited impact, so keep the scope of your response in proportion to the actual threat." For instance, it didn't take much effort for A-B InBev and MillerCoors to respond to the Food Babe, as the brewers simply added ingredients to existing websites, and they showed relatively harmless formulas of "water, barley malt, rice, yeast, hops." As trade pub Beer Marketer's Insights noted: "Fighting transparency in 2014 is often a losing battle, and the more time spent fighting it, the more ammunition is provided to the opposing side."

Join Hands With Competitors
Activism is making industry trade groups more relevant, Mr. Shea said. "You are seeing more companies band together in the form of … trade associations to present the benefits, the positive aspects, of their food category." In some cases, multiple trade groups are even joining forces. For instance, the Grocery Manufacturers Association recently joined with the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers to file a complaint in federal court challenging Vermont's mandatory GMO labeling law.

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