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Rebuilding consumer trust after undercover video scandals

Holly Drankhan Published on 24 February 2014

In an age when evolving technology is at everyone’s fingertips, undercover videos may threaten those in agriculture. Just one unsavory headline and accompanying snapshot can transform fortune to failure.

Recognizing this hazard, Charlie Arnot, chief executive director of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), hosted a webinar titled, “How to Survive an Undercover Video” on Dec. 3.

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Representatives from a variety of disciplines within the food industry tuned in for the summary of CFI’s 2013 Consumer Trust in the Food System research and its application to building a recovery strategy.

Arnot traced the earliest erosion of public trust to 1968, a year riddled with war, government scandal and assassinations, each of which called into question the integrity of historically trusted institutions.

Consolidation within the food industry has since reinforced its perception as an institution, resulting in suspicion from an already skeptical consumer base. And the mistrust continues to grow.

A 2013 consumer survey found that while 34 percent believe the food system is headed in the right direction, 38 percent think it is not, a 6 percent increase from the previous year.

Agricultural corporations are interested in ensuring a level of public trust that prevents further demands for formalized restrictions – or what has been deemed a social license. CFI’s research made some surprising discoveries in identifying the most significant variables in building this trust.

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A three-year survey of 6,000 U.S. consumers concluded that the perception of shared values was three to five times more important than demonstrating technical competency. In other words, a delicate balance must be maintained between ethical justification and scientific verification if a company hopes to remain economically viable.

“People are much more likely to act on how they feel and what they believe than simply what they know,” Arnot said.

Fostering a perception of shared values becomes increasingly difficult as the size of a company grows. The research tells us only 27 percent of consumers believe family farms would put their own interests before that of consumers.

This number increases to 49 percent for commercial farms. Errors related to mass production and putting profit ahead of principle contribute to this negative perception.

But just what issues will spark social outrage? And how can farmers overcome it? CFI’s research indicated that both a high level of concern and perceived personal impact are necessary for outrage to occur. Three topics consistently ranked high in both respects: affordability of food, affordability of healthy food and food safety.

“If you think about it in terms of an agricultural analogy, you have to have the right temperature and the right level of moisture for a seed to germinate. The same is true for outrage,” Arnot said.

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CFI identified a number of factors that inspire social outrage. These include lack of transparency, intentional wrongdoing or misleading and putting private interest ahead of public interest.

Additional contributors are an insensitivity to or callous disregard for public interest, historic record of poor performance, failure or unwillingness to accept responsibility, impact on vulnerable populations and negligence in following industry best practices. Just as these factors can degrade trust, they can also help build it if approached from a positive angle.

elements of trust-building transparency

To test the relative contribution of each element, 2,000 respondents were shown one of four fictional events focused on bad and good actors for incidents in both food safety and the mistreatment of farm animals. While the impacts in each scenario were similar, the companies’ responses greatly differed.

These were reflected in statements from fictional press releases. For example, the statement, “What happens on our farm is nobody else’s business,” by the bad actor represented a lack of transparency. In contrast, the good actor’s initiative to install cameras and provide live footage via the Internet demonstrated a positive movement toward transparency.

Survey participants were given 100 points each and asked to assign them to a variety of social outrage elements according to their perceived impact on outrage or peace of mind.

For the bad actor, perceived malicious intent ruined consumer trust. The top contributors to outrage were callous disregard for public interest and intentional wrongdoing.

For the good actor, demonstrating transparency was the most vital in reinstating peace of mind. CFI outlines a seven-step process to trust-building transparency, which focuses on accuracy, motivations, disclosure, stakeholder participation, relevance, clarity and credibility.

Despite both demonstrating misconduct, the good and bad actors’ dissimilar responses to the crisis resulted in very different levels of consumer confidence, trust, perception of competence and likelihood of repurchase.

While the majority of attitudes relating to these matters were understandably negative for the bad actors, they remained positive for the good actors, proving that addressing such issues in public properly is crucial in surviving disasters such as undercover videos.

With this conclusion in mind, Arnot offered webinar attendees five tips to surviving an undercover video.

1. Be prepared and assume that someone may always be taping the farm’s activities.

2. Keep a track record of animal care and maintain strong relationships with professionals who can corroborate claims.

3. Immediately accept responsibility.

4. Increase transparency by inviting the media and exploring expanding opportunities for digital clarity.

5. Demonstrate an understanding of ethical responsibilities to ensure the well-being of animals.

“The public has an interest in farm animal care. You need to embrace that interest and accept responsibility,” Arnot said. “Ensure that farm workers understand policies on animal care and codes of conduct, and that they have the training and support to follow them. Recognize why the video raises concern. Activity may be inconsistent with broad public values. And remember, past actions will be a factor.”

A company’s response to an undercover video plays a critical role in its survival. However, preventing such footage from being captured on film by respecting consumer concerns is an even more effective approach to maintaining trust. PD

Visit The Center for Food Integrity website for more information on these research findings. Visit their Events page to watch the webinar.

Holly Drankhan is a student at Michigan State University.

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