It’s a common refrain: The food industry needs to communicate better. So could the occasional apology improve public perception?
I found one particular story very refreshing last week. When the Flemish food experts and dietitians’ association VBVD faced backlash after it used a Coke-sponsored ad space to advertise its (science-backed) position on sugar, it didn’t just say that its position was backed by science.
It said ‘oops’.
The VBVD had been slammed in the Belgian media for its campaign, for allegedly promoting sugar consumption, as well as for Coca-Cola’s involvement. The message was that sugar wasn’t poison, but could be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet – and Coca-Cola wasn’t involved in developing the text.
When she spoke to me about the issue, VBVD board member Els Vercruyssen came across as genuinely sorry and rather embarrassed about the situation.
“We don’t want the public to see us like this. We won’t be advertising like this again in the future,” she said.
It struck me that this was a surprising response, and I asked myself, why should I find it surprising?
Increasingly, consumers think the food industry is at best ambivalent to public health, and at worst, actively plotting to hook them on sugary, fatty, salty food.
Much of this view is underpinned by consumers' growing distance from their food supply and the associated notion that some big corporate evil must be to blame for burgeoning food-related ill-health. But most of the time, corporate communication on health initiatives and company motivations comes across as hollow, vapid platitude spewed from a PR machine that has learned the ‘correct’ way to communicate in a media relations night class for robots. It’s no wonder people are sceptical.
I think many of industry’s problems would never become problems if it stopped trying to gloss over the challenging parts of business by explaining why company policy is always right.
Contrast the VBVD reaction with responses when the industry’s biggest companies were criticised for poor performance on ethical and sustainability issues in an Oxfam report last month.
Coca-Cola, with a score of 41%, said it was committed to sustainable communities and agriculture. Kellogg (23%) said it was committed to working more closely with farmers to improve sustainability. General Mills (23%) said it would continue efforts to advance its work as part of its commitment to sustainability.
Oxfam called those responses ‘bland’ and ‘complacent’. I agree.
What VBVD did by putting forward a frank and robust apology is a lesson in good public relations. When your company is affected by controversy, is there someone at your firm who is empowered to ask the question: Did we get it wrong?
Or does the company enter damage control mode and put forth platitudes about the company’s good intentions?
In my view, an insipid response can do more harm than good. Sometimes the best reaction is to say sorry, pledge to do better next time – and actually follow up on that pledge.