PR Lessons from a Growing Meat Scandal

Employees work at a production line prior to a seizure at the Husi Food factory in Shanghai

A growing scandal surrounding Shanghai-based Husi Food Co. should focus the mind of communicators when it comes to dealing with global supply chains and crafting a contingency plan for when a crisis ensues.

Chinese authorities are reportedly investigating Husi, a meat supplier owned OSI Group of Aurora, Ill. Husi has been forced to close in Shanghai after a local TV station ran footage of the company's factory workers picking hamburger patties and meat from off the factory floor and throwing them directly into meat mixers.

Both McDonald's and KFC parent Yum Brands have apologized to customers about the scandal. According to the AP, Starbucks Corp. on Tuesday said it removed from its shelves sandwiches made with chicken that originated at Husi while Burger King Corp. said it stopped using hamburger it received from a supplier that used product from Husi. In Japan, meanwhile, McDonald's Corp. said it stopped selling McNuggets at more than 1,300 outlets that used chicken supplied by Husi, the AP said.

In a statement, Husi said it was "appalled by the report" and would cooperate with the investigation. It promised to share the results with the public. "Our company management believes this to be an isolated event, but takes full responsibility for the situation and will take appropriate actions swiftly and comprehensively," the statement said.

As the economy gets increasingly globalized, PR managers have to be on their guard about their relationships with suppliers from other countries whose safety standards may not be up to snuff.

Indeed, there are several things that communicators can do to mitigate the risk of dealing with suppliers who may negatively impact your brand.

For starters, PR pros shouldn’t hesitate to over-communicate with their global suppliers regarding the company’s industrial and consumer standards and what the penalty is if a supplier is found to have violated those standards.

PR pros also need to prepare a "first response" for the media and other stakeholders should the brand suffer a crisis stemming from its supply chain.

That response needs to be forceful, of course, but it also needs to account for language and the particulars of the country and/or region in question, so as not to alienate any peoples and make a bad situation worse. A scandal that originates far from home requires a deft and sensitive touch.

Here are some other tips to cauterize any potential wounds stemming from a bad situation, er, supply-chain crisis, with a tip of the hat to Mark Grimm, president of Mark Grimm Communications.

> Act with reason, not emotion. Easier said than done. It’s especially hard when some media people are acting irresponsibly to jazz up the story. Follow the plan, be respectful and focus on creating a positive end result.

> Demonstrate genuine empathy for those harmed. Empathy is not a show—it’s a heart-felt trait that needs to be genuine. If the CEO is not capable of it, put someone out there who is.

> Get ahead of the story. Do not automatically take the defensive position. Be proactive about shaping the narrative of the story. Think often about what you want the headline to be and have a strategy for making it happen.

> Listen actively. The Internet and social media remind us that communication is a two-way street. Be an active listener to what people are saying and writing on the Internet. Engage them in the dialogue and be open-minded about their suggestions and complaints.

> Be your own media outlet. Technology allows an organization to communicate directly and quickly to a mass audience, with a message that is unfiltered by any media. Build this infrastructure in advance of a crisis and use every tool available, including video, to reach people, shape opinion and generate supporters. Encourage them to spread the word on their own.

To learn more about crisis communications, order a copy of PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook, Vol. 7.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1