The value and risks of online communities in the social media era: Minimizing brand and financial damage during a crisis

The food and drink industry in Europe is the largest in terms of people employed and contributes significantly to exports made to the rest of the World (European Commission, 2016).

The recent history of food scares across Europe, including Salmonella in eggs, BSE in beef and dioxins in animal feed, has negatively impacted consumer confidence in the food supply chain and regulatory agencies. The impact on the brand and management reputation and earnings of individual companies and EU country economies as well as national and EU Food Safety organizations is significant.

Research has shown that it can take significant periods of time for a company to recover financially from a food contamination crisis. Other research has indicated that a fast response to a developing crisis can help reduce those costs and longer term damage to a brands reputation.

Despite various measures taken to reinforce consumer confidence, communication of food risks and benefits still remains challenging, with current public concerns related to a range of things including new food technology, diet-related diseases and the perception that some organizations place a greater focus on profits than food safety. The adoption of appropriate and effective approaches to risk/benefit communication and the use of coherent messages to prevent the spread of misleading messages is expected to lead to a reduction in the proportion of negative consumer reactions and unjust consequences for those operating within the food supply chain.

The aim of the FoodRisC (Food Risk Communication – perceptions and communication of food risk/benefits across Europe) project was to map out the networks and information sources contributing to food risk and benefit communication. It was funded under the European Commission’s 7th Framework Program. It involved 13 research organizations across 9 EU countries and lasted 3.5 years ending in September 2013.
It provided new evidence in five areas:

  • The characterization of food risk and benefit issues and the consequent communication implications.
  • The potential role of new social media in communicating food risk/benefit.
  • The way in which consumers respond to information they perceive as uncertain, contested or confusing and to develop relevant segmentation criteria.
  • The applicability of the concept of information seeking to the design of food risk/benefit communications.
  • Developing practical ways in which consumer sense making and deliberation can be taken into account in order to provide substantive benefits to stakeholders in developing communications.

New and classical media

FoodRisC objective was to explore the role that media and online ‘information communities’ play in food risk/benefit communication.
The objectives of the research activities were to:

  • ... understand how online information communities source and report food risk information.
  • ... characterize a recent food risk communication process that had a European-wide impact, was widely reported and had significant social and economic implications: The case of dioxin in Irish pork and beef in 2008 was selected.
  • … track at least one real-time alert relating to a food crisis through the media and identify post-event the barriers to effective food risk communication identified within classical media, and new media.
  • … to research what information and support is required and/or is available from official sources to the online information community to ensure reporting accuracy.
  • … to compile best practices for working together with online information communities for policy makers, which will allow online information communities to help disseminate coherent messages about food risks and benefits to the general public particularly after traditional journalists stop reporting on the topic.

The research investigated 3 major food contamination incidents which impacted multiple countries across Europe. These were:

  • 2008: Irish dioxin crisis in pork
  • 2010/11: German dioxin crisis in pork, chicken and eggs
  • 2011: Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) crisis in sprouted seeds
  • 2013: Irish/UK horse meat contamination

During the last 3 incidents above, real time tracking and analysis of data was undertaken to see if a management alert and response system could be developed and effectively deployed. Over 500,000 social media postings were evaluated across multiple countries and languages. A mix of automated and manual content analysis was undertaken in addition to identifying the source of news where possible, outreach, tracking social media amplification (re-tweets, links to postings etc.) and links to and from traditional broadcast and print media.
Results showed:

  • Social media were important communication channels especially as the size of social networks increased considerably during the period of the research (2010-2013).
  • Social media users responded very quickly to a food crisis however that interest fades quickly compared to traditional media (i.e. the role of many ‘citizen journalists’ is different to broadcast and print media journalists).
  • Negative (and positive) information remains in search engine results for a long time after the crisis is over so requiring a fast reaction to a developing crisis to mitigate the ‘echo chamber’ effect.
  • Most official food safety organizations across the EU had limited presence in social media and no strategy for active monitoring and use but tended to rely on media releases to traditional broadcast and print media.

As a result of the research, a resource center with guides and advice was established online. The six areas covered in the resource area are: 

  1. ‘Evaluate your situation’ summarizes factors identified, by both academics and practitioners, as being crucial to risk communication decision-making. Reflecting on the purpose of the communications strategy is a key factor to keep in mind when deciding on future activities.
  2. ‘Understand your audience’ offers guidelines and tips to tailor communication according to the needs of the target audience. Besides knowing who your audience is, it is important to identify key influencers and increase communication effectiveness towards them. This section includes an interactive, online tool to help decide the best research method, to gather knowledge about the audience and to respond to potential research questions.
  3. ‘Create your message’ gives tips on how to translate science accurately into relatively simple language that risk managers, stakeholders and wider audiences can understand, in order to avoid misinterpretations.
  4. ‘Media channels’ identifies the strengths and weaknesses of different communication channels (both social and traditional media), and offers practical guidance, such as ‘how to get started’, and tips to assist best practice.
  5. ‘Monitor communications’ presents tips and guidelines on how to monitor online conversations, which makes it possible to detect upcoming issues at an early stage and to learn more about networks of people involved in discussions and content creation.
  6. ‘Public involvement’ enables understanding of the thoughts and needs of both consumers and stakeholders through the VIZZATA tool, which is essential to maximize the effectiveness of food risk and benefit communication.