ConAgra's public response to the second-largest meat recall in US history differs dramatically from several high-profile food and medicine scares of the past, say experts in crisis management.
Aggressive, compassionate and sustained communications with the public helped Tylenol, Jack in the Box and Odwalla recover from what might otherwise have been devastating blows to their brands, said consultants who have helped shepherd companies through major crises.
ConAgra, by contrast, has stayed largely in the background as 38 people across 12 states have fallen ill after eating its Greeley-produced ground beef made between April 12 and July 11.
"The communications I've seen coming out of the company have been fairly emotionless and unfeeling," said Robert Kaiser, a crisis consultant who helped manage the aftermath of a shooting massacre at a Southern California McDonald's in 1984.
"They need to be more candid and straightforward with the public."
Wiley Brooks, a Seattle-based public relations specialist, said he was surprised that ConAgra issued no recall-related press releases, purchased no advertising to inform or reassure the public and made little mention of the issue on its website.
Top officials at ConAgra's Greeley-based beef business have not spoken publicly about the recall.
Instead, the US Department of Agriculture and grocery chains have released information regarding the recall, and ConAgra spokesmen have handled media inquiries.
"In a crisis, the only thing you can control is what you say and do," said Brooks, who advised the Jack in the Box hamburger chain after its E. coli outbreak in 1993. "There's no evidence I can see that ConAgra is trying very hard."
ConAgra officials say they've achieved their primary goal throughout the crisis: minimizing the safety threat to consumers.
They also point to a Harris Interactive survey, taken during the five days beginning July 19, in which 64 per cent of respondents who were aware of the ConAgra recall said the company acted "extremely" or "very" responsibly.
"I think we did as well as anybody could," said Tim McMahon, ConAgra's senior vice president of communications and marketing.
"The measure of a brand is not, 'Did they have a problem?' but 'How did they handle the problem?' We did own up to it, and we took a lot of negative press, but we've done the right things, and I think people can see that.
"The good news is that everyone from this recall is healthy and safe. That's very significant. That's the outcome we want," he said.
In its interviews with the media, ConAgra has emphasized that consumers can significantly reduce or eliminate the risk of E. coli by cooking their meat to 160 degrees and by using sanitary practices in the kitchen. A beef-safety tips box appears on computer screens of anyone visiting the company's website, although recall information is limited to a toll-free number listed several clicks away from the home page.
But because the company is a beef supplier whose products are packaged and sold under other brand names, it's appropriate for ConAgra to stay in the background for much of the public communications during the crisis, McMahon said. Advertising, he said, might have caused more harm than good by creating general hysteria about beef safety.
ConAgra has kept key corporate and division managers apprised of recall developments with regular e-mail updates, McMahon said. It's also working diligently to satisfy federal safety regulators and its big customers -- primarily grocery chains, wholesalers and food-service companies, McMahon said. Only Safeway, which sold much of the meat connected to E. coli cases, has suspended ConAgra ground beef purchases pending further notice. Other buyers include Kroger, Wal-Mart, Lion King and dozens of smaller grocers who say they're cooperating with the recall.
Analysts estimate that ConAgra will spend up to $10 million (€10.3m) recovering recalled ground beef. And there are other costs. The company has agreed to pay an estimated $1 million in medical costs for some victims, in return for release from liability. ConAgra could face litigation from others who became ill, and its revenues could drop if customers were to abandon the company.
Despite ConAgra's actions so far, critics say its public response is subdued compared with high-profile crises of the past. In the cases of Tylenol, Odwalla and Jack in the Box -- each more serious than ConAgra's because they involved deaths and damage to consumer brand names - the companies mounted aggressive public-relations campaigns that contributed to their recoveries.
Johnson & Johnson set the standard for crisis management in 1982, after seven Chicago-area residents died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol pain killers. The company immediately alerted consumers across the nation not to consume any type of Tylenol product until the extent of the tampering was determined.
The company also recalled more than $100 million worth of Tylenol capsules from the market and stopped production and advertising.
Eventually, Tylenol introduced new tamper-resistant packaging and offered $2.50 off coupons to encourage customers to return to the brand.
Odwalla Inc. also mounted a major public-relations campaign in 1996, when E. coli linked to its fresh apple juice killed a Colorado child and sickened dozens of people in Western states. The company ordered a recall of all apple and carrot products, made its chief executive available for regular interviews, ran advertisements and set up a crisis website.
Odwalla also conducted surveys, visited Internet chat rooms and evaluated news coverage to measure the extent of public outrage.
Jack in the Box officials responded defensively during the first few weeks of their E. coli outbreak in 1993, turning down interviews and restricting information, said public-relations consultant Brooks.
But facing mounting criticism, the company eventually developed a plan to communicate and reassure the public, he said.
Peter Sandman, a risk-communication consultant, said a company's response to crisis often is determined in the first few days. It's better to overreact and err on the side of caution than to underestimate the severity and have to change course later, he said.
"The single most important thing to do is to take it seriously enough at the beginning," he said. "In some major meat recalls, they've underestimated the size to begin with. Then they have to come back and expand it. The second or third time you have to go back to the public and say it's worse than we thought, then you're in very serious trouble. It's much better to have to come back and say its not as bad as we thought."
In this respect, Sandman gives ConAgra barely a passing grade. The company initially announced a relatively small recall that later grew dramatically. But ConAgra may have responded appropriately the second time, he said, greatly reducing the likelihood of yet another expansion.
Where the Omaha-based food giant may have stumbled, however, is in its communications with the public, he said.
"It's important for management to be explicitly apologetic, even aghast, about what happened," Sandman said. "Saying sorry is not admitting it's your fault. You know it happened, and to the extent it's your fault, you feel really bad. Companies that do that come out in better shape every time."