The FoodRisC project (Food Risk Communication – perceptions and communication of food risk/benefits across Europe) project aims to map out the networks and information sources contributing to food risk and benefit communication in Europe.
A major focus of the project will be to explore the role that new online ‘information communities’ and social media play in providing information sources related to food risks and benefits.
“We will try to make recommendations on the unique potential of social media, and guidance on how people communicating risk can best use this type of communication to get across messages on food risks, and benefits,” said Dr Robert Fitzhenry, food safety and risk communications manager at the European Food Information Council (EUFIC).
Speaking with FoodNavigator.com Dr Fitzhenry said that one of the great aspects of twitter is that it’s an important news source: “In the end the tweets and links from social media help me to better understand things,” he said.
“The great thing is that if you have an important comment to make, you might be limited to 140 characters on twitter, but you can still get something out there, and people will respond to you,” said Fitzhenry.
Adrian Moss, managing director of Focus Business Communications Ltd, told FoodNavigator that the volume of data, or the buzz, created on food risks on the internet, and particularly in social media has increased massively in recent years.
“Just shy of two years ago we had the Irish pork dioxin crisis; then we were looking at a few thousand mentions on Google, with quite a few blogs and online news … This wasn’t exactly the early days [of social media], but when you consider this against the volume when we fired up some analytical tools in January this year for German dioxin crisis … now we are tracking well over a hundred thousand mentions,” said Moss.
“It gives you an idea of the magnitude of the growth in this area … It’s phenomenal,” he added.
“As time goes on social media is becoming more embedded in consumers’ lives, so it’s important to have a system in place that puts out the right message in the right context,” said Dr. Fitzhenry.
Fitzhenry added that this means that everybody will set up “whatever that means to them.”
“It’s a decision for each individual or organisation to think about what they want to achieve, and the best tools that are available to meet those goals,” he added.
Moss said that as the food industry moves into the social media space, they will have “a big part to play” in assisting to communicate risks, because their presence will help messages reach a wider audience.
On the other hand, not everyone agrees that social media is always the answer when it comes to risk communication.
“The problem with certain aspects of social media is that you are often in a closed network,” said Fitzhenry, “people have to find you and then become your friend or follow you etc … So sometimes if you want to get a message out, perhaps a longer more thought out piece on a blog or an alert through an online news site would reach a wider and more diverse audience,”
“But we don’t know that for sure, and that’s what we are tying to find out through the FoodRisC project,” he added.
Whether you’re posting the latest findings of a study on Facebook or tweeting the latest information on a food safety crisis, social media can be used as a very powerful outreach tool to try and help to educate people and bring greater understanding to information, according to Moss.
“There is a lot of potential for social media to really explain risks in ways people can understand, to try and explain the science and factual information in a medium or form and style that the public are able to understand and relate to,” said Moss.
“We can sometimes use language that is well understood by people in or close to the industry, but it can leave members of the wider public bemused and unsure of what’s going on. So some of the explanations being tweeted, that put things into perspective are good … they are more meaningful than the pure facts or science. It’s about having somebody of authority come out and say ‘look this is what this actually means for you’,” he explained.
This sort of communication may also help when something bigger happens in terms of a crisis situation.
“Quite often intelligence of the facts is in short supply … It’s a cacophony of noise sometimes, but equally it can be deafly silent,” said Moss
He explained that in crisis situations, officials often need time to put together accurate information, therefore causing a delay in communications.
“In that delay all sorts of rumours and misinformation can start to be passed around … Then trying to find the right source of information, to get the latest accurate information can become very difficult,” explained Moss.
In this respect Moss said that it is “very interesting” to investigate how social media can help to create a two way dialogue, in a food crisis context. He noted that as such, it is not just about putting out the initial message, but also about listening to feedback of how the public picks up the message and how it is relayed within the social media community.
“If we are not validating and checking our message has been received accurately, and is being passed on accurately so that people are being directed to the right sources of information that has the latest news, then we begin to have a situation of miscommunication and misinformation,” said Moss.