THE PITCH COUNTS IN FOOD-SAFETY MESSAGE: PANEL

PHILADELPHIA -- Food safety is just as much about communication as it is about protection, said a crisis-management expert who spoke at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2001.Nancy Glick, executive vice president of Ruder-Finn, Washington, and a veteran of many public-education campaigns, stressed the importance of food-safety communications at a time when consumers seem to believe

PHILADELPHIA -- Food safety is just as much about communication as it is about protection, said a crisis-management expert who spoke at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit 2001.

Nancy Glick, executive vice president of Ruder-Finn, Washington, and a veteran of many public-education campaigns, stressed the importance of food-safety communications at a time when consumers seem to believe they don't have major roles to play in solving the problem.

"Americans are not paying enough attention to food-handling messages," Glick said. She added that consumers believe food safety is "someone else's problem" and are reluctant to change long-held habits or learn the proper methods of preparing and storing food.

"So there are a lot of problems that communications must address," she said.

Glick outlined a six-step plan for retailers intent on improving communications. The elements include: developing relevant messages, creating a national slogan, prioritizing messages, using multiple information channels, creating coalitions and sustaining commitment to the effort. She then described each of these steps:

DEVELOPING PERSONALLY RELEVANT MESSAGES

Glick said it's been shown that the most effective communications "reach people where they live.

"It's about me and my family. If it doesn't have personal meaning, people won't listen. And it must be an issue consumers can act on specifically and simply."

She cited two major campaigns that meet this criteria: Fight Bac! and Shape Up America! Fight Bac! is the public/private coalition sponsored by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, which is dedicated to educating the public about safe food handling to help reduce foodborne illness. The campaign created the animated character Bac -- a play on the word bacteria -- to help drive home the message, focusing on positive messages to help people prevent foodborne illness.

"This problem involves complicated issues of cross contamination and pathogens," Glick said. "They had to put a face on it, so they created the character. Bac became public enemy No. 1."

The Shape Up America! campaign is aimed at targeting obesity as a preventable and treatable disease. The program conveys the message that "obesity is not a problem of appearance or lack of discipline. It's a condition like arthritis and diabetes, but it can be prevented and treated."

CREATING A NATIONAL SLOGAN

"You need a memorable, actionable slogan that motivates -- but it's not easy to create," Glick noted.

The challenge is to make the slogan original, imaginative and entertaining while insuring it fills the need of the campaign, she said. It must successfully address the campaign's focus, reach the right audience and achieve the desired response. Glick pointed to the following campaigns for their effective slogans:

"Five a Day For Better Health" (Produce for Better Health Foundation and the National Cancer Institute)

"Healthy Weight For Life" (Shape Up America!)

"Breakfast: Take the Time" (American Health Foundation)

"Calcium Counts!" (Calcium Information Center)

"Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

"Fight Bac! Keep Food Safe From Bacteria" (Partnership for Food Safety Education).

PRIORITIZING MESSAGES

A campaign has a better chance of succeeding when it limits its focus to a finite number of messages, Glick said.

The Shape Up America! campaign, for example, targeted specific messages on goals for activity, diet and body weight. For example, one message was: "Add a total of 30 extra minutes of physical activity a day."

USING MULTIPLE

INFORMATION CHANNELS

Glick recommends employing a combination of media in educational campaigns to drive behavior changes and generate ongoing publicity.

The mix should include "big media channels," such as television, radio, print, PSAs and the Internet and "small media channels" including posters, shelf talkers and point-of-purchase materials, Glick said.

CREATING COALITIONS

Campaigns can make the best progress by associating with other people and organizations, Glick said.

"Don't think about going it alone. The most effective campaigns mobilize a coalition."

Recommended steps include creating a national coalition of organizations in fields such as health, offering turnkey materials, attracting the support of political and community leaders, and mobilizing the coalition for events.

SUSTAINING COMMITMENT TO THE EFFORT

The only good commitment is a long-term one, Glick stressed. Such an attitude will help guarantee success in driving consumers to embrace food-safety practices, she said.

"You can't solve the problem overnight. You must communicate the same messages over and over. So think about campaigns as at least five-year initiatives."

In another food-safety presentation during the same session, Richard Lobb, director of communications for the National Chicken Council, also based in Washington, told the PMA audience the chicken industry has managed to successfully overcome years of negative publicity on issues like salmonella.

Today a number of processor-owned chicken brands have won the trust of consumers, he said. Safe-handling labels on the product also help ensure proper food handling and instill consumer confidence.

The council's Web site relays food-safety messages in addition to presenting other features, such as recipes. Other vehicles used include educational brochures, outreach to food publications and joint programs with specific companies.

But a major challenge for the council is to sustain costly publicity campaigns, a hurdle which forces the accociation to think creatively while executing a limited budget, Lobb said.