5 lessons from the strawberry needle crisis

When consumers discovered needles in their strawberries in Australia, an entire industry was thrust into turmoil. Here’s what can be learned from the official crisis response.

Australia is in the grips of a food contamination crisis after metal needles were discovered in strawberries.

The soft fruit sabotage has spread to at least six brands in four states and has resulted in Coles and Aldi supermarkets pulling the product from their shelves across the country. Additionally, New Zealand food distributors have stopped selling Australian strawberries.

The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association says that the incident has brought a multi-million-dollar industry “to its knees.” To complicate the issue further a woman was caught putting a needle into a banana in an apparent copycat act.

Clearly, this is a crisis with huge commercial and consumer confidence implications. What can we learn about the way it is being managed?

1. Have a clear message.

In a crisis like this, you need simple, clear advice if you are going to reassure customers.

Consumers want to know whether the strawberries they have brought are safe to eat and whether they need to avoid buying them next time they are in the supermarket.

The advice from the authorities has been clear. People should still buy strawberries, but they should cut them up before they eat or serve them. Dr Jeannette Young, Queensland’s chief health officer, put it best when she said: “Remember if in doubt, throw them out; otherwise make sure you chop before you chomp.”

A clear, memorable sound bite containing sensible advice.

2. Take decisive action.

As well as consumers, the other key people affected by this crisis are the farmers and other people involved in the industry.

Growers are already concerned about their futures and there are fears that jobs could be lost as tons of prime fruit are dumped and prices crash. In a situation like this, both producers and consumers need to see that action is being taken to resolve the situation and find those responsible.

So far, the government of the state of Queensland had put forward a $100,000 (about £71,510) reward.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said: “Whoever is behind this is not just putting families at risk across Queensland and the rest of Australia—they are putting an entire industry at risk.”

She continued, “I would urge anyone with information that may be relevant to this incident in any way to contact police as soon as possible.”

3. Avoid speculation.

The Queensland Strawberry Grower’s Association claimed on Thursday that the needles may have been placed by a “disgruntled employee.”

A golden rule of crisis media management is to avoid speculating on the motives or causes of the issue. Stick to the facts that you know at the time.

It may be that the speculation came in response to a journalist’s question. For example, a reporter could have asked: “I understand this may have been an inside job?” In that situation, the spokesperson should avoid getting drawn into commenting on possible causes and stick to what they know.

It was notable in this particular incident that the police quickly countered that comment from the grower’s association, saying that it was too early to speculate.

4. Provide regular updates.

In a fast-moving crisis media management incident like this, holding statements will only last for so long and organizations need to be on the front foot, releasing information at regular intervals.

Failure to provide updates will result in the media trying to fill the void.

When a needle was found in a banana there was clear potential for the crisis to deepen further. Police quickly updated the media that this was believed to be an isolated incident and that the woman concerned was believed to have mental health issues,

Releasing as much information as possible also adds to the feeling of honesty and transparency, which can play a crucial role in restoring confidence. If people feel information has been held back in a crisis, or it is perceived that there has been a delay, then confidence will be further dented.

5. Recognize the appeal.

A crisis always generates plenty of media attention. Threats to public health and food safety, in particular, are always hot topics. In these types of situations, it is important that those involved look to work with the media and don’t view journalists as the enemy.

In this particular case the authorities appear to have recognized that this is a story with potentially huge appeal, and as well as the regular updates, they have also held press conferences and put spokespeople forward for interview.

Restoring trust and reputation is likely to take time, particularly with the speculation about copycat cases. While it is not always easy to follow a crisis from the other side of the world, there is from what I have seen and read, much to be admired about the way the crisis has been dealt with so far.

Adam Fisher is the content editor for Media First, a media and crisis communications training firm based in the U.K. A version of this article originally appeared on the Media First blog.

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