Alumbaugh: Be the driver, not the victim

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Editor's Note: Click here for more articles from the June issue of PorkNetwork.

It’s relatively easy to find examples of crises and the subsequent media disasters that follow, especially when it comes to agriculture. An obvious case-in-point is the “pink slime” debacle. Read these quotes on the issue from an article in The Holmes Report called, “The Top 12 Crises of 2012,” by Arun Sudhaman and Paul Holmes.  

"BPI hit the crisis trifecta: an unappetizing practice we didn't know about, safety questions, and "pink slime," a negative phrase far more catchy than the product name. Pink slime gave a brand name to consumers' visceral emotional response and rational safety concerns.”
– David Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council

“Clearly, the company was not prepared to defend its own product. It’s the old cliché: No one wants to know how sausage is made, but if you’re in that business, you have to be prepared to respond quickly and transparently. That means having a crisis communication plan with strong, clear messages and a spokesperson who is trained to respond in a calm, credible manner rather than blaming the media for doing its job.”
– Barbara Paynter, partner at crisis management firm Hennes Paynter Communications

The outcome of the issue was devastating to the company and was detrimental to the beef industry. The pork industry – either collectively or individually – can’t afford a similar calamity. That’s why the National Pork Board has developed crisis response plans to help producers prepare for and respond to potential crisis situations that may arise in the course of business.

“Crisis planning isn’t anything new for us,” says Cindy Cunningham, assistant vice president, communications, at the National Pork Board. “The idea is to define the process to draw impacted parties into action. The plans help the industry and those in it learn how to be prepared in crisis situations and how to respond with factual information.”

It’s a methodical process of making sure the bases are covered, explains Cunningham. It’s about having the expertise and the spokespeople to address the issues, either third party or internal. The Pork Board forms partnerships to cooperate and identifies pathways to communicate, with response messages to share and evaluate.

“After every situation, we look back to see what went right, what went wrong and what we would do differently next time,” explains Cunningham.

“We have a number of crisis plans but they’re all built on the same foundation in the industry,” she adds. “The concept behind our crisis planning is that it begins with the annual vulnerabilities assessment. We make sure that we develop, drill and test the resources. Then, being as proactive as possible, our goal is to either move the industry around the issue, or move the issue out of the way of the industry so our producers can continue with business as usual.

Strengthening the Vulnerabilities
Each year, the Pork Board identifies issues that could interrupt the normal flow of business for pork producers, the pork chain, and/or the organization. These are things that could potentially threaten the reputation of the industry. For 2014, the priorities (in ranked order) are:

  • Foreign Animal Disease: “In the pork industry we think of Foot & Mouth Disease, Classical Swine Fever and African Swine Fever,” says Cunningham. “Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus was a foreign animal disease, but now it’s an emerging animal disease.”
  • Pork Safety: This is about the safety of the product to the consumer, making sure they feel it is a safe, wholesome product and when they buy it, that’s what they get.
  • Animal Welfare: “The challenges we see with sow housing, castration, euthanasia and other processes are included in this category. We make sure producers have access to the tools to make the right decisions on their farms to care for their animals,” says Cunningham.
  • Human Health and Nutrition: This area is about the product itself. With human health, the Pork Board looks at the potential to have a zoonotic disease or something that could potentially cross over from pigs to people, and how the industry would deal with that. It also considers fat content, nutritional value, and making sure it fits into a heart-healthy diet.
  • Reputation of Modern Agriculture: “A few years ago it was at the top of our list,” says Cunningham. “It’s not going away (and we don’t expect it to every go away) but a lot of work has been done in this area.”
  • Feed Availability: This issue came on the list for the first time a few years ago during the drought in the traditional form of feed availability; now it includes alternative feed and the potential impact it can have.

Within that format are four specific plans: the National Crisis Plan, the State Association Crisis Plan, the Farm-Level Crisis Plan and the Show Pig Crisis Plan, described here.

National Crisis Plan
“We collectively decided a unified approach is the best way to deal with crises, so the Pork Board, the National Pork Producers Council, the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the U.S. Meat Export Federation work together to the extent that we can,” explains Cunningham. “When we meet as a crisis team we have the same voice (or similar voices), the same outcome and the same philosophy. We are limited to some degree by the Checkoff but the ability to work together on these issues really benefits our producers. The Pork Board focuses on research, promotion and education; NPPC focuses on regulatory and legislative affairs; AASV brings the technology and expertise and the Meat Export Federation helps keep our markets open.

“The judgment and the experience that people bring to the crisis response are critical,” she says. “The concept is to assure consumers have a safe, wholesome product and that the animals are being cared for appropriately – if they are – but every single one is different.”

Cunningham’s responsibility is to coordinate these organizations and their responses, as well as the four response plans.

State Association Crisis Plan
“We’ve worked with our states for years on crisis planning but last year we developed a customizable tool that provides the states the tools they need to do their own vulnerabilities assessment, create their own crisis plans, and build those plans and get everybody involved.

“We provide assistance and are happy to help them build their plan if they want,” she continues. “All tools are built on the same platform so there’s a common language when a crisis erupts.”

Farm-level Crisis Plan
This plan partners with a producer’s emergency action plan, which is the operations side of what to do in the event of a lagoon spill, barn fire or similar event. This plan assists in the ability to continue in business during and after a crisis, whether it’s a natural disaster or an intentional action someone has taken against them. It looks first at protecting the people on the farm; then protecting the pigs and third, protecting the reputation of the farm.

It is customizable and specific to each producer’s farm. It links into the overall industry plan and is designed so producers can sit down, spend two hours with the booklet or online, and answer questions. At the end of the two-hour time period they can hit “print” and have their own specific crisis plan. It’s dynamic, so when it’s filled out online, it populates as you answer questions.

“You can find this tool at www.pork.org,” says Cunningham. “The response has been very positive – we’ve been holding producer meetings and delivering this through state trade shows.

Show Pig Crisis Plan

This plan is specific to shows and exhibitions but it links into the industry plan as well.

It’s interesting that all four of these crisis plans have very different needs, but the ability to have them all on a common platform is invaluable. In the event of an issue, everyone is speaking the same language and knows what the next steps will be.

Cunningham says, “Julie Maschhoff of The Maschhoffs was instrumental in helping us refine our crisis plan in the very early stages of development. They had a fire in their feed mill a few years ago, after we had been there to help them as they developed their plan. Julie sent an email later that day saying that having the plan in place really helped them to respond, know their responsibilities and do the right thing while the fire was going on. She’s a strong advocate of crisis plans at the farm level.”

Maschhoff’s quote on the pork.org website stands as testament: “As a pork producer, I know first-hand the implications of a farm-level crisis,” she says. “We’ve dealt with everything from flooding to tornadoes to fires, and we’ve learned that having a crisis management plan helps us stay focused.”

“In our national plan as well as the farm level plan, you’ll see a lead and an alternate, because crises don’t happen at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning when everyone is around,” points out Cunningham. “They happen at 6 p.m. on Friday night or over the weekend. Having a second person or a backup who can take charge of a situation is really important.

“Having thought through the situation, you also need to be flexible enough to deal with how the crisis plays out,” she adds. “Sometimes we get a plan in our head and we don’t want to deviate from it, but every crisis is different so having the flexibility to be able to make decisions on your feet is important.”

Color-Coded

All four plans are based on an “intensity level” of red, orange, yellow or green. Green is the everyday issue that pops up and you deal with it internally – it involves day-to-day issues management. Yellow is when things start to get more intense. These issues might include a potential threat to human health, a long-term customer relationship threat, or perhaps a disease outbreak. Orange is when the entire core crisis team is called together to work on a response. For example, H1N1 was always in the orange category.

“Knock on wood, the red category is reserved for Foot & Mouth disease,” says Cunningham. “If that were to happen, it would definitely be all hands and all resources on deck.”

People, Pigs and the Farm’s Reputation

A crisis plan protects the people, pigs and reputation of the farm, which allows the farm to be in business after the crisis. In essence, it creates a safety net for the people involved.

“The most valuable tool that came out of this farm-level crisis plan was the opportunity it provided for producers to think about worst-case scenarios and how they would deal with a situation before it happened,” notes Cunningham. “It helped them put a plan in place for the “what ifs,” recognize their vulnerabilities and then make sure everyone involved knew the plan.”

The whole point of crisis management is to encourage producers to think about things before they happen, and know that there are resources available for assistance. “Sometimes when things happen, you feel like you’re an island unto yourself,” says Cunningham, “so one of the first things you should do is call the Pork Board so we can help you with resources.”

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