business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Good fences may make for good neighbors, but stonewalls sometimes only make you look really, really suspicious.

At least that’s how it appears when a company simply refuses to publicly answer questions that are uncomfortable and ugly, yet positioned as highly necessary. Absolutely no one likes negative publicity or prying reporters looking into difficult situations.

Like it or not, those situation arise and you need to be ready.

A classic example of this came up with last week’s airing of “The Trouble with Chicken,” a Frontline show on PBS. From the headline alone it was obvious this show would be challenging and the promise was kept.

Frontline examined the impact of salmonella, particularly a strain called “Heidelberg.” As with any food safety story, this included intimate examinations of families impacted by food-borne illness and all the resulting nightmares up to and including death. Food safety stories are never, ever happy.

However, that is not the reason companies need view this one-hour show. Rather they need to watch the response of two poultry companies and consider how both come off by the end of the broadcast.

Let me start this with a piece of honesty: I really know nothing about this case. I haven’t followed the companies, haven’t tracked their responses or even how consumers have reacted to the problems of infected poultry. In essence, I was watching like any other viewer.

The show worried me because while I know salmonella is a big problem I had no idea it is commonly found in poultry processing plants. In fact, it seems there are accepted levels of the bug, which means the entire industry must redouble efforts to remind shoppers of the keys to safe food handling.

The reality is that if salmonella is so common, food safety problems aren’t an “if” but “when. ” Safe food handling knowledge needs to be out there endlessly. And it’s hardly surprising that immediately after the show, politicians were talking up new rules and regulations for poultry recalls.

But again, consider the reaction of the two companies at the core of the story. Both were at the center of some food safety outbreaks and I’d bet both have taken similar steps toward improving the processes.

One company, Cargill, came off significantly better. Cargill let the Frontline cameras into a plant and took them through the entire food safety process. What’s more, Cargill supplied a spokesman who seemed straightforward and genuinely concerned about the issue.

In fact, Cargill came off so well - to my eyes, that is - it makes you wonder why Foster Farms and the chicken producers' trade association both declined to comment at all. Like I said, I know none of the details about this case, but it looked like one company was being open and the other hiding.

In today’s world, communication is paramount. We understand that today’s shoppers no longer celebrate or suffer in silence. They share thoughts, experiences and commentary on everything they do. That, in turn, challenges companies to be ready to engage, even when the subject is uncomfortable.

Silence is no longer golden. In fact, it can make you look kind of chicken. And when salmonella is the issue that’s a bad thing to be.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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