Pork Industry Tries to Cure Swine Flu

Posted May 1, 2009 at 6:25pm

With the swine flu scare dragging its name through the mud, the pork industry will kick off a $1 million national advertising campaign this week to make sure “the other white meat— doesn’t also fall victim to the epidemic.

National Pork Board spokeswoman Cindy Cunningham said her group will begin pushing back on the scare’s negative publicity through a “Pork is Safe— newspaper and online advertising campaign that could begin as early as today.

The Pork Board, which was created by Congress, is paid for by pork producers.

“We are quite concerned with the amount of coverage with the name swine flu as opposed to H1N1,— Cunningham said. “We’ve spent a considerable amount of time building up the market for pork in the U.S.—

Cunningham also said that her organization began surveying consumers last Tuesday about possible fallout from the epidemic of H1N1 influenza. As of Friday, the World Health Organization had reported 365 confirmed cases of the virus in 13 countries worldwide, including 141 in the United States and 156 in Mexico.

According to polling by the pork industry early last week, more than 80 percent of consumers continue to believe pork is safe to eat, numbers that are in line with pre-epidemic surveys, said Cunningham. And 90 percent of those surveyed planned to eat the pork already in their refrigerators and freezers.

“Those are two sets of facts that we’re very encouraged by,— she said. “However, we want to make sure that the message continues to get out there and continues to be reinforced.—

Cunningham also said that President Barack Obama, federal agencies and the WHO have helped out their cause. Obama referred to the virus by its formal, scientific name during a television press conference last Wednesday. And since the outbreak began dominating the news early last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control and the WHO, too, have begun referring to swine flu as H1N1.

The WHO, in a press release distributed last Friday, emphasized that bacon, sausage, pork chops, tenderloins and other cuts of the animal continue to be safe for consumption.

“There is also no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products,— the United Nations-funded group said in a statement.

Despite the high-profile endorsements, however, crisis management experts say the damage may already be done.

In the era of 24-hour cable news, the Internet and YouTube, they argued that even a mild stumble out of the starting gate can be irreparable. Crisis veteran F. Joseph Warin, a lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, said it’s generally better to err on the side of caution in these situations, arguing that the pork industry needs to distinguish “that the it’ isn’t them’— — and quickly.

“You have to message that to the nines,— he said. “It’s got to be simple and have Barack Obama eating a pork chop or Joe Biden with a hot dog.—

Rusty Hardin, a Houston-based lawyer who represented now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen and former professional baseball player Roger Clemens during their tense moments in the spotlight, agrees, adding that “it’s really hard to change opinions once they’ve been formed.—

“Whether you are a corporation, an individual or an industry, the communications world is so instant and so opinionated, if you decide to wait, it’s too late,— Hardin said.

Hardin also said the swine flu frenzy presents a unique quandary for pork producers, whose four-legged commodity is not implicated in the spreading of the disease, but whose farmers will still likely bear the brunt of the negative publicity.

“I’d be trying to gather as much information as I could and respond if I thought it could make us look better,— Hardin said.

Patrick Dorton, whose public relations firm Rational 360 specializes in managing crises, said that bad planning can compound an already uncomfortable situation. If executives don’t already have a plan in place, they have to start from square one.

“Not often enough do companies have contingency plans,— he said.

The pork industry also may find it hard to battle back, Dorton said, because consumers aren’t necessarily inclined these days to give them the benefit of the doubt.

“Even in good times the pork producers probably don’t win an industry popularity contest … and now they’re faced with a big crisis and they have no choice but to start working on their image with policymakers and with consumers,— he said. “That means orienting whole companies towards consumer safety, starting with the CEO but including the sales force and people who work in the plants.—