Unwelcome headlines about bird flu transmitting to humans has raised the question of how proactive the industry’s response should be. Michael Barker reports
After the year it has had, the last thing the poultry industry needed was a PR nightmare.
The news nobody wanted to hear came via a UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) press release on 16 May entitled ‘Avian flu detected in two individuals taking part in testing programme.’ The release was measured, played down the risk to the population and didn’t suggest any reason to panic, and the likelihood is that pre-2020 it would barely have gained any column inches in the national press. But this is a different world, and today, government press releases using terminology such as ‘contact tracing’, ‘nose swabs’ and ‘screening programmes’ take on a different perspective.
Front page headlines, lengthy opinion columns and countless online ‘explainers’ followed in the days following the release. While the reporting was generally responsible and focused on the facts, skim readers could have been forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu from those unnerving days in late 2019 and early 2020, particularly with news outlets noting China had also reported its first death from an H3N8 virus transmitted from animals.
Among the reporting was an opinion piece in The Guardian entitled ‘Bird flu could become the next human pandemic – and politicians aren’t paying attention’, while the Washington Post had an explainer under the headline ‘H5N1 bird flu in mammals sparks fears of virus spreading among humans’. That was despite the fact that the likes of UKHSA explicitly stated it “has not detected evidence of human-to-human transmission and these detections do not change the level of risk to human health, which remains very low to the general population.”
The Daily Mail, for once, was a voice of measured reason with its headline ‘Two Brits are struck down with bird flu but health chiefs insist there’s no proof killer virus is spreading between humans’, though it’s use of the words ‘killer virus’ were undoubtedly unhelpful.
The storm seemed to blow over quickly, but it was an awkward few days and piled extra strain onto farmers who have had to deal with so much in recent times. “The impact of such news at the farm level can be significant, particularly for farmers and poultry workers who are already experiencing financial pressure and emotional stress,” says a spokesperson for Livetec Systems. “Understandably, they may be worried about the potential consequences of an outbreak, and how it can affect them in both their work and personal lives.”
Preparing a plan
Dieter Lloyd is managing director of Pam Lloyd Food Marketing & PR. As official spokesman for the British Leafy Salads Association, he has had to deal with public relations crises around outbreaks such as listeria and E.coli, and field the inevitable flood of calls from journalists that come on the back of it. Lloyd believes the most important thing for an industry when it comes to responding to potentially damaging headlines is to have a unified response and a spokesperson who is appointed to present that view. “You want to have somebody in a position of knowledge to be able to state the facts,” he says. “It can’t be a chicken farmer – it has to be someone from outside who understands what poultry is and what the implications of a particular situation are. The key thing about having a spokesperson is that it takes the story away from the individual business, so you don’t have, say, Ranjit Singh Boparan commenting on it because then it becomes associated with his company.”
Lloyd stresses that not every story has to be responded to and notes that some people – particularly in comments sections on newspaper websites – are destined to constantly panic and scaremonger. The key thing to managing any reputational risk is to have a plan: “So the key players from each of the of the big industry groups should get together and they basically need to say ‘do we have any areas that could become a concern? What does any given scenario mean to us and what could our responses be?’ You essentially produce a play book and you say ‘in these circumstances this is what we would do, this is the process we go through, these are the first responses, and we don’t deviate from that’.”
Getting on the front foot and keeping the record straight can be a helpful thing to do too. The Livetec spokesperson says the industry already takes these kinds of situations very seriously and already does a lot of work in raising public awareness. “We can perhaps go further to raise awareness about the importance of effective biosecurity being the key to overcoming avian influenza,” they said. “At Livetec we are committed to delivering the highest standards of true biosecurity and are building the future of livestock protection for all – whether they are a backyard keeper, poultry farmer, egg producer or large-scale farming enterprise. It is only through the application of genuine biosecurity, not just foot dips and chemicals alone for example, that we can truly overcome avian influenza, a disease with no cure, as prevention is by far and away the only way to protect poultry.”
Ultimately, the latest headlines are unlikely to have had a major impact and quite probably passed most people by, but there’s no room for complacency. The words ‘Edwina Currie’ still send shivers down the spines of many people working in the UK egg industry after her public comments did catastrophic damage to sales in 1988, and nobody needs anything like that right now. “Commercially my guess is that the ‘bird flu transitioning to humans story’ made not one jot of difference to sales, certainly not in comparison to the cost of the retailers’ behaviour towards British eggs in the last year, which has been far more damaging,” Lloyd concludes.
And the spokesperson from Livetec believes the reputation of the industry still holds it in good stead when such stories do emerge: “The UK is recognised as a leader in delivering high animal welfare standards and is the industry’s commitment to delivering them, which should instil confidence in quality and safety, and consumers should not be deterred from purchasing poultry products.”