Presentation at the international conference on public relations Bledcom, which attracted more than 200 academics from all over the world. Slovenia, Bled Lake. 6th and 7th July 2012.
Public Relations and Communication Management: The State of the Profession Proceedings of the 19 th International Public Relations Research Symposium BledCom Bled, Slovenia 6-7 July 2012.
EDITORS: Dejan Verčič, Ana Tkalac Verčič, Krishnamurthy Sriramesh, Ansgar Zerfass
PUBLISHED BY: Pristop d.o.o. Trubarjeva cesta 79
Sandra Veinberg Ph.D., Associate Professor, Riga International School of Economics and Business Administration.
Correspondence address concerning this article:
Sandra Veinberg, RISEBA, Faculty of Audiovisual Media Arts, Public Relations and Advertising Management
Meža iela 3, Rīga, LV-1048, Latvia.
The Crisis communications will always require unique solutions. In this particular case is investigated a case dealing with the conflict between a manufacturer – a food company and health surveillance of the product. These are the crisis when it can be observed that the PR field is unique and, due to its originality, cannot be imported or adopted. Any attempt to adopt or absorb the PR experience of America, Great Britain, or any other country into Latvian was decidedly unsuccessful (in both public relations theory and practice). Most trials for this experiment have failed and this means that PR has closer ties with the cultural-community background than we thought before.
This means that the alternative method of understanding this PR crisis is to look at it within the respective time, industry and national development cultural-political context.
Keywords: Multicultural communication, PR, Culture conflicts, Everyday life, Globalisation, Risk Communication, Win-win situation.
The alternative way of understanding current PR
My presentation is about almost-crisis PR. The Crisis communication will always require unique solutions. I will explain the notion of “almost”, because in this case crisis PR can not be clearly distinguished from the point of view of a cultural conflict or reterritorialization (Lull, 2000) which emerged due to the current international PR communication (L´Etang, 2011).
Firstly, let us focus to the principal issue – summary of the actual event. This fact has made quite a noise in the state of Latvia. In this particular case, dealing with the conflict between a manufacturer, i.e., a food company, and health surveillance of the product is investigated.
A year ago, i.e., in June 2011, the population of Latvia was surprised by an unexpected announcement of the Danish professor Steen Stender that “majority of our daily consumed products should be rather used for shoe polishing than eating” (LTV, 2011).
The professor arrived at Riga to participate in the Nordic-Baltic Congress of Cardiology and announced his findings in an interview to a television, which prepared broadcasts from the congress. Stender , Chief physician and Lab Director at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Copenhagen County Hospital in Gentofte, University of Copenhagen. As Chairman of the Danish Nutrition Council’s subgroup dealing with trans fats and health, he lobbied for – and successfully achieved – a ban on trans fats in Denmark.
Denmark approved the ban in March 2003 and it came into effect on 1 January 2004.
The ban made it illegal for any food to contain more than 2 percent trans fats. Offenders face hefty fines and could even be jailed. As of January 2007, Denmark remains the only country in the world to have banned foods with more than 2 percent trans fats content.
In Latvia, nobody knew professor Stender or anything about his war against trans fats. By arriving at the congress in Riga, Steen Stender expected to continue his combat against trans fats, because inappropriate food is in amongst the main explanations for the Latvia’s leading position in Europe relating to death rates caused by cardiovascular diseases.
Professor’s anti-top included approx. 1’000 products made in different countries of the world and causing illness. Wafers “Selga” made in Latvia occupied position #4 in this black list. They “as if” had particularly high content of trans fat acids. During the most popular news broadcast Steen Stender announced on the TV screen that eating one package of “Selga” wafers equals smoking 10 cigarettes implying that wafers made in Latvia are as harmful as cigarettes. The announcement of professor Stender made quite a noise in the country. Firstly, such reaction was caused by the fact that these wafers are a long-term and traditional treat for Latvian population. The treat is popular and used by practically everyone (from schoolchildren to seniors) and until today, not one (as it seems) has died from eating wafers. Secondly, the announcement was made public by the main television news broadcast of the public television “Panorama”, whose publication was later used by all largest national media. Thirdly, the announcement had the background of congress of Nordic-Baltic doctors-cardiologists taking place at the end of June in Riga.
Professor Steen Stender was interviewed during the congress of doctors and local dieticians supported his statements.
The explosion had taken place in the public space. Significant part of Latvian population found out that food products have such large portion of the harmful trans fat acids only after this “wafer scandal” and the speech of cardiologist Steen Stender. Danish professor claimed that “Selga” wafers have 44% content of trans fat acids. Few days later it turned out that the professor exaggerated the rate and that the incorrect number was named by someone in his laboratory in Denmark; actually the trans fats in wafers make only 9% in the total content of fats (instead of 44%). Stender corrected the mistake in media; however, he still claims that also 9% is excessively much. Local cardiologists and dieticians supported him.
Wafers “Selga” at one blow became a synonym to poison and large share of country’s population was ready to run to doctors to check their health.
After few days of confusion, the producer of wafers NP Foods announced in media that the result of Stender’s laboratory is a mistake and that a package of these wafers actually contains just 4% of trans fat acids. “The amount is acceptable in European Union states, and there are no provisions about the limitations for trans fats in food” (Vēsma Smilga, Quality Department Manager, NP Foods, DB, 20 June 2011). Exactly, European Union has no unified requirement to decode trans fats on product packaging. Therefore, the content of trans fats in cookies, cakes, chips, ice-cream, margarine, etc. Only Denmark and Iceland stipulate that trans fats must not exceed 2% of the total fat content; also Switzerland and Austria have limitation, but Sweden is in the process of introducing them.
What were the actions of the wafer producer NP Foods in this crisis? The producer began crisis communication with consumers and professor Stender. Nobody bought wafers now, because of the unwillingness “to eat shoe-polish” or “to smoke 10 cigarettes”. The producer of wafers reacted too late in communication with the society. Obviously, the producer believed that the mistake of 44% instead of the actual 4% (NP Foods data) or 9% (corrected data of Eurofins) is enough for the society to see the scandalous media announcement in a sceptical light. It means that the first crisis PR level was complied with, i.e., providing the necessary information to the society. In the same, the company began attacking the carrier of the bad message.
The producer, together with Didzis Šmits, Head of Latvian Federation of Food Enterprises, publicly declared that the announcement of professor Stender has “knowingly falsified information about the quality of “Laima” products, which is one of the oldest and most recognized brands” and that professor’s announcement is “an attack to the brand”. This is the “beginning of a planned economic war against the national enterprises of Latvia”, “economic war”, deliberate attempt to “reduce the value of Latvian goods” and that such methods are “old daily practice of national and international corporations in fighting for sale markets and resources” (BNN, 27 June 2011). Afterwards NP Foods turned to Security Police with request to initiate a criminal case against professor Stender for defamation and deliberate actions deteriorating Latvian economy and NP Foods prepared also to apply to European Commission with request to evaluate “unsubstantiated and illegal distortions of competition market” (BNN, 1 July 2011).
The economic war was on. In addition, also the public television broadcasting Stender’s announcement was subjected to attacks.
NP Foods insisted that “deliberate campaign of discrediting the brand” is carried out by involving both Danish professor and the news service of the public television. The scandal ran high and professor Stender had to visit at Riga to arrive at the police station and explain his claims with relation to the wafer case. The producer suffered extensive loss (due to Stender’s announcement). Before visiting police station in Riga, professor Stender spoke at the Diet Council meeting arranged by the Ministry of Health about the facts of harm caused by trans fat acids. Media convoy accompanied Stender to the police station. He was interrogated for three hours, after which the professor returned to Denmark.
The initial announcement about the content of 44% of fat acids, about which he became informed from a certified Danish laboratory, was the main misfortune for the professor. Laboratory’s mistake ruined the authority of Stender, and the professor himself recognised that (44% compared to 9% or 4%). NP Foods used the mistake to attack the scientist. In its crisis management, the company attempted to use sabotage first.
The company attempted to prove that the Danish professor and news service of Latvian Television deliberately harmed the popular brand of “Selga” wafers. In an interview in the magazine “Lietišķā Diena” , Stender said that, although he apologizes for the error in the wafer test results that was caused by the laboratory, he still maintains that this product contains too much trans fat and has negative effects on health. “Of course, it would not harm me if I ate one. It is the same as sometimes smoking a cigarette. It does not kill you,” he replied to a question on whether he would be willing to consume Selga wafers (Lietišķā Diena, 2011.16.07).
What happened after that? The wafer producer faced crisis in communication with mass media. The recent studies in the field show that “media can determine the course of crisis (…) if they have informed about the events themselves” (Larsson, 2008).
The wafer producer failed to comply with the following factors within the crisis communication with media (Flodin, 1993):
1) Time conflict (while the producer focused on the respective percentage error, the media had increasing number of unanswered questions);
2) Conflict of sources (the producer continues emphasizing on the discrepancy of percentage and the restrictions of European Union standards, but the media is interested in more extensive issues of population health and food producer’s responsibility);
3) Conflict of responsibility (the media think that the main questions remain unanswered, but the producer believes that everything has been explained);
4) Conflict of competence (media tend to simplify, but the producer and institutions see the whole picture);
5) Conflict of trust (if errors are detected in the beginning of crisis, consumers see the entire further communication suspicious).
In this case, the producer of wafers obviously considered that its opponent is just the Danish professor, whose version about the harm of “Selga” wafers was formally inadequate/inappropriate. Formally, the percentage of 4% complies with European Union standards (unlimited content of trans fat acids for now). Consequently, the producer has done no “harm” and the purchasers are free to keep on eating the wafers. NP Foods considered that an accident or a disaster is primarily a management problem, but the event immediately becomes a media event, particularly if human death or injury is involved (Black, 1993).
Media perceived the information about the trans fat acids in food dramatically as an issue of health or death in the style of Hamlet. Majority of purchasers now carefully study the inscriptions on product packaging. The situation resulted in increased competence of population regarding trans fat acids. Actually, it was no discovery, since local dieticians have discussed trans fat acids for a considerable period of time (globally, Latvia has one of the highest death rates caused by cardiovascular diseases) and falling ill is largely related with unhealthy diet. However, the society did not hear the warnings of diet specialists. Danish professor Stender, like a magician, changed the situation at one stroke. Media and the society suddenly began requesting the producers to indicate the precise content of harmful fat acids on the food product packaging. The public opinion and mass media took the side of Danish professor Stender and the producer NP Foods was forced to stop the war against the “Denmark’s interests in Latvia”.
Only three months later, i.e., in September, the food manufacturing company “Staburadze” (NP Foods) claimed they have began the production of wafers containing no harmful fat acids at all. Representatives of the company admitted to the media that manufacturing wafers without fat acids would be more expensive; however, the price for purchasers will remain at the same level.
In order to draw the attention of purchasers to this step, the producer decided upon using the “wafer scandal” for the product packaging. Further on it will be decorated with a caricature of professor Stender. He will hold a magnifier with an inscription “0% fat acids”.
The wafers will no longer contain synthetic colours and the content descriptions will be easier for the consumer to understand, e.g., the packaging will have the inscription of “baking soda”, instead of “E500”. They also planned to send the “new wafers” to the professor Stender in Denmark. The company considered that this step will put an end to the story about trans fat acids in the wafers (LTV, 20 September 2011). After the reform and the discovery of the Danish professor, the turnover of wafers has increased. This was a way to notify the mass media about the expansion of wafer manufacturing at NP Foods. Ten more people have been employed, but NP Foods (TVNET. 20 September 2011) have terminated the cooperation with the Association of Doctors and cardiologists
The “wafer scandal” is an interesting case of PR crisis management from many points of view.
Firstly, it indicates that in globalisation conditions the producers must consider the cultural conflicts, which until now have been studied more extensively in PR theory at the level of product localisation.
This time it is the issue that “PR contributes to improved diplomacy and better understanding among peoples” rather than the cultural imperialism ((L´Etang, 2011). Stender’s PR campaign against trans fat acids turned out to be more efficient than the defence of NP Foods in favour of “Selga” wafers. In this case, Professor Steen Stender, by speaking at the Latvian Television, used multicultural communication forms which are simultaneously transmitted to many cultures and which are applied to research into variable ways in which cultures communicate (L`Etang, 2011). Professor Steen Stender used this approach (without changing the form of message) in Czech Republic, U.S., Poland and Denmark to inform about the content of the harmful fat acids.
Would the reaction of mass media and society be similar in Sweden (where I live), if a Danish professor would come and prove that the Swedish national dish surstömning or fermented Baltic herring is harmful to health? It seems that the reaction would be different, since Swedes have comparatively better background/basic information about these issues. Media discuss the issues of product quality more extensively and more analytically and the society is more trusting to food product quality monitoring institutions. Sweden is not as “new” country (as Latvia), and therefore the society is less sensitive “about the national treats”. I assume that Stender’s mistakenly declared 44% would draw the attention of the producers from Swedish news services already before publishing and 9% would not be able to cause such scandal. Local experts aware of the public background of everyday’s life in a globalization world usually comment upon food quality issues to Swedes.
Up to now, “McDonaldization” had the dominating role in the food criticism field (Ritzer, 2000), i.e., cultural imperialism that globalisation has promoted capitalism and consumerism, and PR practitioners had to maintain the balance in local (national) antipathy towards foreign fast food because of globalization.
In this particular case, the direction of the message is opposite, and namely, a prophet comes from the globalized world and blows up the leading product, i.e., wafers of the oldest industrial company (Anno 1870). This time it is not a question of problems in a large multi-national concern in some country of sales market. It is the question about a claim of a foreign expert blowing up the local industry. Certainly, professor Stender failed to act in line with the catchphrases “think global, act local”. He applied offensive strategy (Larsåke Larsson, 2002) resulting in his score of a direct hit.
What can we learn from this event? In my opinion, the condition that the statements of Danish professor Steen Stender’s were laconic and exact had the decisive role in this case of PR crisis. The witticism of his claims was the main factor and he established emotional and descriptive comparisons capable of convincing the public more efficiently than logic arguments of numbers and facts. He functioned as a “fast thinker” proposing such messages as “fast food” (Pierre Bourdieu, 1998) immediately “swallowed by mass media” and becoming a “scoop”: “consuming a package of wafers equals smoking 10 cigarettes” or “trans fat acids are a poison to metabolism”.
His statement was laconic, figurative, containing comparisons and a negative sensation; it was exclusive with the effect of accumulating emotions, proposed at the right time, conforming with public needs and therefore understandable in all languages.
The offensive response arguments of the wafer producer did not help, because, although the professor made a mistake in specifying the content of harmful fat acids, his openness and honesty convinced the society more efficiently that the aggressive reaction from the producer. The producer did not attempt to initiate a dialogue with the professor, medical practitioners and interest groups, which was crucial in this case (Karaszi, 1998). By emphasizing his interest in “public interests” (Habermas, 1984) Danish professor was ready to have open dialogues with the society. He even arrived at the police, although he could have avoided this “visit” in Riga. He applied the symmetrical communication model by becoming an “opinion former” and later also an “opinion leader”. He implemented three pre-conditions of PR publicity (Karaszi, 2005): announcement of unexpected news (popular wafers contain substances harmful to health), arriving as a “rescuer from disaster” (helped to interest the population in the content of food products) and fighting as a David against Goliath (“a lonely specialist” vs. the large industry). The opponents NP Foods used the asymmetrical model unaware that “non-policy could succeed unless it had national opinion behind it” (Nicolson, 1954).
Further, I will focus on the strategy analysis. The well-known and widely applied strategy model (see Figure No. 1) is envisioned for discussing PR conflict strategies (Larsson, 2001;Tomas, Spicer 1997,).
Spicer (1997, p. 249) indicates “the polarity between concern for self and concern for others is a critical conceptualisation” in this model. In this case NP Foods chose avoidance with “inside approach” (from inside). Another option is to select the adverse strategy “from abroad” (from outside) (Larsson, 2008). The first case means that the company is developing PR strategy based on its own rules only. In the result there are very few options to localize and adapt own message to the public expectations due to the one-way communication. In the second case (strategy from outside), symmetrical communication is required. These strategies may be passive or active and conforming with the understanding about distribution strategy and supply strategy (Windahl, Signitzer, 2008).
Transmission strategy dominated in the “wafer scandal” already from the beginning. The second strategy, i.e., strategy of awareness of external factors, was characteristic to the company NP Foods only in the post-crisis situation. After the crisis, there was the opportunity to select from four strategy forms; see Figure No. 2. According to the opinion of the authors of this concept (Savago, Spicer 1997), a company may choose collaboration strategy only when the public is ready to cooperate, however, the threat is still present. Consequently, the public/purchasers are still not sure that eating “Selga” wafers will cause no harm to their health. Therefore, NP Foods chose to change the recipe of the wafers (recipe accepted by the public) and afterwards they were able to continue the dialogue with purchasers in the form of symmetry dialogue. Consequently, it was the collaboration strategy (by offering the campaign of wafers with the image of the Danish professor to the purchasers for reduced price). On the other hand, with regard to Steen Stender it was strategy monitoring to avoid from making new decisions and causing unconsidered communication.
The use of the new recipe in the production of “Selga” wafers is rather considered as a new type of offensive strategy to combat the “external foe”, and therefore his caricature is now on packages of “Selga” wafers. From 20 September 2011 to 31 March 2012, there was an organized extensive marketing campaign “Let’s Treat the Professor” (“Pacienāsim profesoru”), during which the wafers were sold with discounts. By the way, NP Foods delivered a package of the new wafers to the professor as a Christmas gift in December 2011. Such measure is a typical example of risk communication strategy.
Certainly, a company can achieve the win-win situation in its closest vicinity using the risk communication. On one side, the purchasers see that the wafers have become more healthy (now the content of the harmful fat acids constitutes 0.2% in the new wafer products) on the background of the other existing and unimproved unhealthy products (ice cream, chips, popcorn, etc.). On the other side, the image of the Danish professor-carrier of the bad news, has been demonized and determined to the level of a caricature due to the marketing campaign and his fatal error. “Effective public relations efforts can build community support through collaborative, community based decisions regarding the kinds of risks that exist” (Heath, Palenchar, 2000).
The wait-and-see aggressiveness of company’s crisis PR may be explained with the fear from reputation damage. Sure, the wafer producer NP Foods fought for its reputation, which requires “regulatory moral correctness” (Röttger, 2009) in the existing “social world” (Habermas, 1984).
Reputation consists of three dimensions – functional, social and expressive (Eisenegger, Imhof, 2009), and the respective “wafer example” shows that the announcement of professor Stender aimed at the social reputation of the producer (social reputation is untouchable until the moment when the attempts of the company to achieve maximum functional success do not conflict with the standards and values of the society) and automatically hurt the functional and expressive dimensions of reputation. The passive and defensive strategy of the producer of wafers prohibited extending the symmetric communication, which in crisis is more important than the product itself. “By buying a product we largely express ourselves as individualities, and at that point every purchaser feels that knowing the moral position of the producer is important. In times when politicians and other traditional authorities lose their prestige and meaning the ethics requirements increase towards the producers (…) mass media and purchasers are the judges in this case.” (Bryntesson, 2002).
In my opinion, the producer did not exercise “the responsibility of performing one’s duties in an ethical (…) and capable manner” (Black, 1997), because PR has been incorporated in the part of communication that stands for credibility already for a long period of time (Bryntesson, 2002).
Of course, the PR strategy of the producer used the classic five “Ps of ethical power” – Purpose, Pride, Patience, Persistence and Perspective (Blanchard, Peale 1988). These five broad principles of ethical behaviour are an excellent guide for public relations practitioners and other professionals. In this particular case with wafers “Selga”, professor Stender, and fear of purchasers from trans fat acids, in my opinion, lacked active feedback communication with purchasers and, most importantly, with doctors and dieticians, who would reinforce the producer’s prestige in the society.
The question, can a crisis (defect) serve, as an effect in PR work, is still open. Many crisis researchers doubt that crises can be used in favour of a company, but it is clear that “we see crises as opportunities for learning and improvement” (Ulmer, 2007). Certainly, crisis solution and crisis communication situations change and today we are unable to establish the exact moment of the end of crisis, since its development may take form similar to the domino effect. Different companies react differently to crises and everyone must consider the immediate mediatisation of incidents.
These are the crisis when it can be observed that the PR field is unique and, due to its originality, cannot be imported or adopted. Any attempt to adopt or absorb the PR experience of America, Great Britain, or any other country into Latvian was decidedly unsuccessful (in both public relations theory and practice). Most trials for this experiment have failed and this means that PR has closer ties with the cultural-community background than we thought before.
This means that the alternative method of understanding this PR crisis is to look at it within the respective time, industry and national development cultural-political context.
BNS, 2011. 23.09
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