by Gabrielle Lukes-Mooney
May 14th, 2015

In August 2013, New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra sparked a global food-safety scare when it admitted there could be bacteria in one of its milk whey products that could cause botulism, a severe and often lethal form of food poisoning. The impact of the scare was unprecedented, causing the New Zealand dollar to drop sharply, and prompting a wave of panic that saw China and a number of other major markets block all dairy products from New Zealand.

As Fonterra was then Danone Nutricia’s main supplier of whey powder, a number of Danone Nutricia’s Karicare infant formula products were falsely implicated in the scare, prompting the company to initiate a series of product recalls across international markets. The botulism scare turned out to be false alarm, but the reputational and financial damage inflicted on Danone Nutricia was immediate and severe.

Weber Shandwick was tasked with guiding the communication programme, which required effective information gathering, continual situation analysis and strategic consultancy. The crisis team worked around the clock to develop messages to inform and reassure the public and key industry stakeholders. Key messages focused on this as a precautionary recall due to Danone Nutricia’s concern about baby safety.

Objectives

  • Ensure all Danone Nutricia customers received timely and accurate information to protect the health and safety of babies
  • Minimise damage to Danone Nutricia’s brand and reputation internationally
  • Reassure Danone Nutricia’s stakeholders about the company’s commitment to providing products that meet the highest quality and safety standards

Execution

Only two weeks before the crisis, Danone Nutricia had appointed a new managing director for ANZ, Corine Tap, so intensive media training was provided to prepare her for multiple press conferences and ensure accurate information about the precautionary recall was disseminated to concerned parents.

For the first time, a comprehensive digital and social media strategy was instigated in tandem with traditional media relations work, allowing Danone Nutricia to easily connect with parents who had concerns about how the recall would impact their family.

As soon as the products were cleared and back on the shelves the PR agency developed a three-pronged approach that allowed the public and key stakeholders unprecedented access to the Danone Nutricia plant and Tap to explain the manufacturing process ‘from cow to can.’

This included a live Facebook chat with Tap for anyone with concerns or questions about the crisis or the products to interact directly with the head of the company. Factory tours for media, government stakeholders, key Asian importers, health professionals and the public allowed key stakeholders a ‘behind the tin’ look at the blending and packing facilities, testing laboratories and Careline call centre operation.

The agency also developed a batch tracker tool for Danone Nutricia’s website that enabled customers to learn about the journey of their infant formula product, from tracing the origins of its ingredients through to when it underwent the various processing procedures.

Results

  • Within just four days, negative sentiment had been driven down to pre-crisis levels.
  • Tap received public praise from government stakeholders for the clarity and compassion she demonstrated
  • Mitigated damage from a Facebook protest site and helped turn the tide of sentiment to support Danone Nutricia’s efforts.
  • Took a ‘holding page’ for Danone Nutricia’s Facebook community from less than 100 members to an active, positive community with over 4,900 participants.

The Fonterra botulism scare was a global food safety crisis that shook a national currency, rattled consumer confidence in a country’s dairy heritage and undermined the important trade relations between China and New Zealand. This crisis communications campaign successfully navigated Danone Nutricia through this crisis.

This case study first appeared on PRWeek. Please see the article here. 

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