Best Practices: What to Do When Activists Come Calling

bpa_free_logoOne of my go-to quick-and-healthy dinners is a can of Amy’s Organic fat-free vegetable soup topped with slices of chicken sausage.

OK, yes: It’s still processed food (and I know I could and should do better!), but some of that guilt is removed thanks to a new sticker Amy’s has been putting on every can that reads: “This soup is canned in a BPA-free liner.”

Good move, right? This little sticker reinforces the notion that buying Amy’s Organic is the healthier choice. It’s also a perfectly proportional response to health concerns raised by groups such as the Breast Cancer Fund over the use of Bisphenol A, or BPA, in can linings. Other companies, such as Campbell Soup Co., have followed suit in removing BPA from their packaging.

As Advertising Age points out, processed-food companies—even seemingly “good” companies, like Amy’s Organic—are on the defensive as never before, and repeatedly under attack from online health advocates and activists.

The rise in attacks comes from, you guessed it, “social networking tools and digital media, [which] have created opportunity for groups of consumer advocates to target individual brands in order to influence company decisions,” notes Sanford C. Bernstein notes in a recent report.

So what’s a company to do? Should companies respond to every single threat? And how?

Advertising Age rounded up five response tips from food marketing and public relations experts:

1. It is Better to Respond Than to Ignore
“No accusation about the safety of your product should go unchallenged. That is because the information will live online and “will be searched and accessed by others, so your story needs to be on the record”
— Karen Doyne, the leader of Burson-Marsteller’s crisis practice

2. When Responding, Be Prepared
“You have to evaluate the claim or potential criticism and have clear justification or rationale to support whatever position you take.”
— Rick Shea, a former packaged-food marketing executive and president of Shea Marketing

3. Be Proactive
Employ the “breadcrumb strategy.” By making “information findable right now is so important,” she said. “Because once somebody grabs onto a topic and there is no information available, they fill the void with a lot of misinformation.”
— Kim Essex, director of the North American food practice for Ketchum.

4. Keep It Proportional
“Fighting transparency in 2014 is often a losing battle, and the more time spent fighting it, the more ammunition is provided to the opposing side.”
— Beer Marketer’s Insights

5. Join Hands With Competitors
“You are seeing more companies band together in the form of … trade associations to present the benefits, the positive aspects, of their food category.”
— Rick Shea, a former packaged-food marketing executive and president of Shea Marketing