One unexpectedly central element of the national conversation around the coronavirus pandemic has been the debate surrounding the definition of the term “essential” due to its dramatic impact on the health, safety and economic viability of those people and businesses classified as such.

Inarguably, one of those most basic essential needs, and the industry which supplies it, has been thrust into an unusually public spotlight – food. Beyond the essential physiological need, food is deeply personal. We bring it into our homes. We feed it to our families. We cook and serve one another as a sign of love. What and how we eat says something about who we are and how we define ourselves.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a recent consumer intelligence poll conducted by G&S revealed that over half (54%) of Americans have become at least somewhat concerned about contracting the coronavirus through the food they eat. Concerns around food safety, availability, quality and affordability abound among consumers, who report spending more time thinking about where their food comes from and washing their produce for longer than usual.

With closures of food processing plants and meatpacking facilities dominating the news cycle, companies at every stage of a complex and interdependent food supply chain face a crisis of confidence with the American consumer. Now more than ever, it’s critical for these companies not only to implement but also to communicate the safety measures in place that usher our food securely from farm to table and at every step in between.

Consider, for instance, that even if the packaging suppliers and formulators take every precaution and execute perfectly, their efforts become moot if the product they protect is contaminated before it enters the packaging, thus undermining consumer confidence in the integrity of the entire supply chain. Moreover, with nearly a third (31%) of Americans reporting that they are making changes to where they purchase their food, the stakes are high if brands fail to address the issue proactively.

Bridging the Gap from Producers to Consumers

According to G&S research, Americans say all types of people or organizations across the food supply chain should proactively communicate to the public about how they are keeping our food supply safe. Brands up and down the supply chain – from farms and ranches to food processing and packaging facilities, shipping companies,  grocery stores and restaurants – have an unprecedented opportunity, and obligation, to transparently communicate the safety measures they are taking and the value they bring to the end customer.

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To help combat the spread not only of the virus but also of the misinformation that can surface in times of crisis, food companies can take some key actions to reassure their customers and regain control of the narrative.

  • Enact and reinforce safety measures to halt the spread of the virus. As essential businesses, it is vital for food processing plants to continue their operations. Of equal importance, however, is the need to introduce thorough, meaningful preventative measures to protect their employees and ensure the quality of their products. This crisis has highlighted what has always been true: that safety is paramount and that your operations must meet that high bar to avoid exposure to business-critical risks.

  • Communicate safety at every stage. Share the value of the preventative measures you have implemented to dispel myths and inspire confidence in the marketplace. Nearly all Americans agree that it’s at least somewhat important for companies to communicate the actions they are taking to protect both employees (95%) and customers (95%), so ensure that people understand the value your safety protocols bring not only to your workers but also to the end consumer.

  • Don’t let your communications program shelter in place. Publicizing your response to the coronavirus crisis is important, but it’s also not enough. Brands must remain visible to keep their messaging top-of-mind for the consumer – plus, you’ll need to continue to reassure your customers and employees as the situation evolves and the economic and communications climate continues to shift. Communicate consistently across all external and internal channels, and engage frequently with your key stakeholder audiences, including your suppliers, distributors, retailers and employees.

  • Spread confidence, not myths. Fearmongering and misinformation run rampant in a crisis. This one is no different: Alarmingly, 24% of Americans report using disinfectant on their food, despite clear safety concerns. While chemical and cleaning brands have firmly issued statements against this practice and urged customers to avoid spraying disinfectant on their groceries, food companies should also be sharing recommendations about how to safely prepare and consume food. Correcting misinformation is critical when it comes to matters of health and safety, and brands can cement consumer trust by sticking to science and sharing the facts during an uncertain time.

Food brands up and down the supply chain need to inject their voice into the conversation to avoid collapse under the weight of such scrutiny. What’s more, consumers are willing to listen, with more than half (58%) saying they now recognize the role of the farmer as more critically important than they did a year ago. To maintain consumer confidence and avoid reputational fallout during the crisis, food producers, suppliers, distributors and retailers have a responsibility to communicate frequently and openly on their essential role in protecting food safety along a value chain spanning from field to fork. 

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G&S Business Communications is the #1 PR agency for agriculture as ranked by O'Dwyers.
This blog post is the fourth in a series about agriculture and the COVID-19 crisis.

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