Two weeks ago, the owners of Jensen Farms posted a message on their fledgling Facebook page thanking their small community for support “through this terrible time in the history of our beloved farm.”
Since then, this cantaloupe farm located in a fertile valley in Southern Colorado has become the center of a national news story and the focus of numerous lawsuits. The listeria outbreak linked to the farm has caused up to 16 deaths and sickened people in 18 states, making it the deadliest foodborne outbreak in the United States in more than a decade.
As this farm weathers a crisis that seems far from over, here are some best practices to help manage the escalating media onslaught.
Hire a crisis communication PR firm. This is not a shameless pitch for our industry, but rather common-sense advice for farmers who may not be adept at dealing with reporters who don’t know a cantaloupe from an artichoke.
Create crisis messaging. These points can be shared with the media and customers, explaining what the farm is doing about the outbreak and how the contamination might have come about. Also, be sure to include information from the CDC about the bacteria and symptoms.
Keep the information flowing. If the CDC makes a finding, immediately share the information with the public.
Get third-party support. Don’t rely on the CDC to take the lead on finding out how this happened; hire your own investigators. Also, tap into customer support.
Get industry support. This is not an issue for this one farm alone. All farmers who grow cantaloupes are affected, and they can communicate helpful and accurate information about the outbreak.
Grow a thick skin. Whether or not the outbreak was preventable, the lawyers are circling and fingers are being pointed. Remember that some issues are out of your control, and remaining open and honest is still the best response, regardless of the outcome.
Show compassion. Based on the Facebook post, Jensen Farms has this one down.