Cargill Calls on APCO to Teach Employees How to Talk Tainted Turkey

Amid Food Recall, Marketer Joins Growing List of Companies Offering Media Training for Rank and File to Bolster Image

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When meat processor Cargill recently found itself in the middle of one of the largest recalls in U.S. history, the company's VP-corporate affairs, Mike Fernandez, picked up the phone to call Margery Kraus, CEO of crisis firm APCO Worldwide.

But he didn't ask APCO to help stem the mounting tide of negative blog mentions about salmonella-tainted turkey, or craft a company line for Cargill to deliver to media. Rather, Mr. Fernandez told Ms. Kraus he wanted the communications consulting giant to train press-shy staffers at various levels within the company, with one focus being manufacturing employees.

"I needed them to help us prepare individuals who had not normally stood before a camera and weren't used to being interviewed by reporters," he said.

While empowering employees to speak up in the midst of a media firestorm is the opposite of most large companies' knee-jerk reaction -- telling staff to zip their lips is a more likely standard response -- more firms are coming around to this approach. "What's new is that more manufacturing companies, whether in food processing or auto and steel, are having their foremen and other people media trained," observed Gene Grabowski, senior VP and crisis expert at Levick Strategic Communications.

Two key reasons to offer non-marketing employees media training? To make sure they are prepared in the event reporters circumvent established media-relations channels, and to put a human face on the brand in the midst of a crisis.

Mr. Grabowski said there is now a spike in demand from companies seeking credible spokespeople beyond the C-Suite. During toy recalls that plagued Mattel in 2007, he helped media-train Hasbro toy inspectors and other experts much closer to the manufacturing process to dispel rumors that the Hasbro was also involved in the crisis. "They were far more credible with parents," he said.

"There aren't many star CEOs anymore," Ron Kirkpatrick, national manager for executive and internal communications at Toyota, told Ad Age . "Cargill, us and a lot of companies got away from a focus on the one-star persona and has a good group of executives who share the power. It's all well and good and democratic, but the bad news is ... big corporations can lack a human personality, and in a crisis it makes them seem more cold than normal."

Toyota -- which thanks to its brakes-safety fiasco is familiar with crisis communications -- hasn't gone quite as deep within the company as Cargill has when it comes to media training. But it does bring in media resources to train business unit heads on a regular basis, to prepare them in the event that one department might have to speak broadly for the whole company.

The government has been exploring this approach, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took the media-training approach for the first time during the H1N1 crisis, when a lab employee left his comfort zone to work with the press team and talk to reporters about the various steps his group was taking to limit outbreaks.

During H1N1, it was easy to get reporters into the emergency operation center, said David Daigle, communications director at the CDC. However, he said that the communications team "had to make a real push" to bring reporters into the lab. (He also noted that he wasn't involved in the recent Cargill crisis, though the CDC has been involved in the investigations.)

For Cargill, media training is just one of the repercussions of dealing with its massive recall. The current crisis will remain an uphill battle as legal fallout from the investigation continues to plague the communications team. Aside from APCO, the firm works with TBWA/Chiat/Day -- a new global marketing relationship since the spring -- and it recently underwent a public policy review for support in working with non-government organizations and global news media. Mr. Fernandez said the changes to Cargill's agency roster are unrelated to the turkey recall.

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