Pet-food Industry Too Slow: Crisis-PR Gurus

But Some Say Companies Were Wise to Take Time Before Issuing a Recall

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Sent by proud owners, pet photos line bulletin boards at P&G's Iams' call center in Dayton, Ohio. A similar photo ran last week in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald from the owner of a 6-year-old Chihuahua-dachshund mix, who believes the dog was killed by eating Iams chicken fillet and gravy Feb. 25 -- five days after the first consumer complaints about pets developing kidney failure had come to Iams' manufacturer, Menu Foods.
'In any crisis, the first 24 to 48 hours are most important, and there's an expectation that in the first 24 hours a lot can and should be done,' said one crisis communications expert about the pet-food recall.
'In any crisis, the first 24 to 48 hours are most important, and there's an expectation that in the first 24 hours a lot can and should be done,' said one crisis communications expert about the pet-food recall. Credit: Greg Palmer

Strong emotions
The emotion behind those photos is why P&G and other marketers have so much to lose from a nationwide recall of 60 million products made by Canada's Menu Foods but sold under more than 80 brands, most of them retailer private labels. "Many of these people love their pets more than themselves," said Mike Paul, president of the PR firm MGP Associates, New York, "especially people who buy these kinds of expensive products."

Given that bond, was the $10 billion-plus pet-food industry too slow in enacting the recall and reaching out to reassure panicky pet owners?

Mr. Paul is among crisis-communications experts who believe the industry mishandled a problem first reported by consumers Feb. 20, but which didn't lead to the nationwide recall of 60 million "wet-food" products until March 16. The recall came two weeks after the first of nine pets died in "tasting trials" run by Menu Foods involving 40 to 50 pets.

The response time was "absolutely not" acceptable, Mr. Paul said. "In any crisis, the first 24 to 48 hours are most important, and there's an expectation that in the first 24 hours a lot can and should be done."

Rat poison
Reports that surfaced March 23 linking at least some of the deaths to a rat poison -- banned in the U.S. but apparently found on wheat imported from China -- could shift attention toward an identifiable culprit, giving the industry a chance to start telling its side of the story, said Gene Grabowski, senior VP of Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington crisis-communications firm retained by the Pet Food Institute last week.

Of course, consumers may still wonder how Chinese wheat with rat poison ended up in their pets' food.

"I don't think the fact that it's rat poison will make consumers any more confident," said Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates. But he does give the industry, and Menu Foods, which scheduled its first news conference on the issue March 23 after the rat-poison news broke, credit for facing the media more openly, even if it took a week.

Menu Foods said last week at least 15 cats and one dog had died from the affected food. But dozens more stories about other pets that died ran in media across the U.S. last week. A Lexis/Nexis search last week showed 986 reports about the Menu Foods recall, of which 529 mentioned Iams and 417 mentioned Eukanuba, while only 140 mentioned Purina and 135 mentioned Science Diet.

Still, the recall is a problem for the industry because so many brands are affected, said Mr. Rubenstein. "If I owned a pet now, I wouldn't feed it any of the prepackaged pet food."

Key to the turnaround
Key to any turnaround on the issue for the brands or Menu Foods, he said, will be well-advertised assurances that all ingredients going into pet food will be thoroughly tested in the future.

No dry pet food -- the biggest segment of the industry -- has been affected by the recall, which touched about 1% of pet food sold in the U.S., Mr. Grabowski pointed out. He predicted individual brands, but not the industry, will soon begin advertising to counter negative publicity now that a cause has been established.

Levick also represented spinach growers following last year's E. coli crisis, and Mr. Grabowski said it's not until precise causes are identified that "you can have a teachable moment." Speaking up too fast "could mean having what you say ends up in a PowerPoint presentation in a trial."

James Lukaszewski, a crisis-communications specialist in White Plains, N.Y., also absolves Menu Foods and the brands for not saying more sooner. Even Johnson & Johnson, whose handling of Tylenol poisonings in the 1980s is the textbook case in crisis management, waited seven days from the first reported death to recall product, he said.

Calls for criminal charges
By week's end, several suits had been filed, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was calling for prosecutors to pursue animal-cruelty charges against Menu and P&G for waiting so long to issue recalls.

On March 22, nearly a week after the recall, a toll-free hot line set up by Menu had a nonstop busy signal. P&G was fielding consumer calls, but both were communicating to media mainly by written statements, if at all, and refusing to answer most questions about how the recall was handled.

In one statement, P&G termed the problem "an industry issue." Its initial recall statement identified Menu as "a contract manufacturer that makes a small portion of canned and foil-pouch 'wet' cat foods for Iams and Eukanuba."

But Menu Foods' documents point to P&G being its biggest customer, with a 10-year exclusive agreement to get all its canned food from the manufacturer. Menu's press and financial statements indicate P&G accounted for about $33 million of Menu's $303 million business last year.

In a later statement last week, P&G said: "The different branded products made by Menu are not 'the same.' Our Iams and Eukanuba pet foods have unique recipes and important ingredient differences."
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