Engage, Not Hide in a Crisis

A new study indicts the level of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup used as a sweetener in baby formula and high energy bars, such as Clif Bars."I just returned all my clif bars to Trader Joes. Not a problem. They didn't know about the problem with the Organic brown rice syrup containing arsenic yet. I sure hope that Clif bars comes out with an alternative and a explanation. I also hope, I didn't jeopardize my health."

This isn't the kind of post you want on your company Facebook page. But it is the kind of post you earn by failing to respond to a question with the same urgency it is asked.

Clif Bar is a well-known and well-liked maker of nutritious, organic food. Go to any marathon or road bike event and you will find Clif Bars everywhere as a source of quick, healthy energy.

"Good food provides health, joy and energy, and is a delight to the senses," says the Clif Bar website. "And food, made right, can make the world a better place."

Unfortunately, the website's home page doesn't include any timely commentary about a study released last week raising concerns about arsenic levels in brown rice syrup, a sweetening ingredient found in Clif Bars, as well as infant formula and other high energy bars.

There is a natural place on the website for this commentary to say — "We recognize that food matters top our families, our communities and our planet — as our food choices affect the physical, social and environmental fabric of our lives." But the commentary is missing.

There are more than 91,000 Facebook fans on Clif Bar's page and a number of them asked the company for an explanation. Here is what one fan got on February 17:

"Thanks for taking the time to contact us. At Clif Bar & Company, food safety is our number one priority and your health is paramount. All Clif Bar & Company foods fully comply with U.S. laws and regulations and our own strict quality standards. We are aware of the 2/16/12 brown rice syrup study. It is important to understand that arsenic exists naturally in the soil, water and air, and trace levels can be found in all rice, and a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and seafood. Low levels of this naturally occurring substance do not pose a safety concern. We have a dedicated food safety and quality assurance staff that makes sure our ingredients and our foods are healthy and nutritious. We appreciate your question."

The Facebook fan who returned his Clif Bars to Trader Joe's wasn't assured. More Clif Bars are likely to be returned as consumers learn about the study and don't see anything more definitive from the company. Or as another Facebook put it, "Brown rice syrup is your main ingredient! I love your bars, but are they still safe?" She got the same rote reply.

This isn't how social media works. Social media is about conversation and engagement, not reciting statements that sound as if they were issued by legal department.

And, you can't wait to respond, minimally to provide some level of assurance to your consumers.

So here are some suggestions for Clif Bar and any other company that finds itself on the wrong end of a tough situation:

  • Address the problem. Do you need to recall your product? Is there a substitute for the ingredient? Fixing the problem, is priority number one.

  • Start talking immediately, even if you don't have a lot to say. Convince people you are on top of the issue. Stay involved in the conversation and don't go silent or into robo-call land.

  • Post an official response on your website and social media sites, but more important, ask people to sign up for your updates, which gives you the ability to talk one-on-one with some of your consumers.

  • If you are caught by surprise, as Clif Bar may have been on the release of the study, do your homework fast. Be able to answer the most basic questions your consumers are asking.

  • Retain a credible third party to join the conversation. In this case, maybe it would be a nutritionist who could put the study's findings into some perspective as to any immediate health risk.

  • Communicate with your employees and your distribution channel so they aren't caught off guard — and know what you are doing to respond.

  • Monitor media and social media coverage, as well as track sales.

Brands such as Clif Bar enjoy enormous loyalty. Don't squander it by freezing in the headlights of an oncoming truck. When one of your loyal consumers writes, "My kids eat these bars everyday. Now I will switch to something without brown rice syrup. sad." Think of it as an opportunity to engage, not hide.