Avoiding the 'Pink Slime'

Managing an issue is a lot easier if you rely on your peripheral vision instead of tunnel vision.In sight, the loss of peripheral vision can result in tunnel vision. The same is true in managing a sensitive public issue.

Glaucoma is a common cause of peripheral vision loss.  In some cases, glaucoma creates pressure that prevents the iris and cornea from opening fully. Glaucoma also can cause blurred vision. Does that sound like the way some organizations manage the issues they face? Some organizations are so sold on their own messages, they fail to hear contrary viewpoints or, worse, cannot see how issues can be reframed.

A good recent example is the "pink slime" issue.  

As described by a USA Today editorial, a savvy Midwest entrepreneur named Eldon Roth figured out how to turn meat trimmings into a profit. "He heated them, spun them in a centrifuge to separate tiny particles of meat from fat, then treated the product with a puff of ammonium gas to kill bacteria." Violå, lean, finely textured beef (known in meat industry parlance as LFTB) was born.

What once was intended for dog food became a thrifty filler to hold down ground beef prices for dog's best friend. 

If you didn't know any differently, the phrase "lean, finely textured beef" sounds like a gourmet product. However, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, who was inspecting the product a number of years ago, coined the phrase, "pink slime" in one of his emails. The scientist's phrase didn't surface until a reporter for The New York Times spotted and used it in a critical 2009 story. Suddenly, "lean, finely textured beef" didn't sound very appetizing.

As the controversy grew, fueled by social media and alarmed parents, meat industry officials defended LFTB. They produced video showing the LFTB process. They pointed out, with some credible backing, that LFTB is safer than a lot of other meat on the market.

However, the phrase "pink slime" simply grossed out consumers. In droves, parents and consumers demanded it be eliminated from school lunches, fast-food burgers and the ground beef they buy at their local grocery store. School officials and retailers acquiesced. Plummeting demand resulted in the closure of at least three packing houses that produced LFTB, or what comedian Jon Stewart labeled, "ammonia-soaked, centrifuge-separated byproduct paste."

No one can predict when a random phrase contained in a meat inspector's email will become a rallying cry for consumers. But no one should lose track of what might happen by converting dog scraps into meat filler. That's where peripheral vision comes in.

Managing an issue doesn't start when people with placards are shouting at your front door. It starts when you take a candid look at your product, service and idea and think about what could go wrong and how to avoid it.

In addition, smart public affairs advocates should spend time anticipating negative branding, a common form of throwing a rotten tomato at your pride and joy. Supporters may call national health care reform the Affordable Care Act. But opponents score points by darkly describing the same law as a government takeover of health care. Women's rights activists are "pro-choice." Anti-abortion forces oppose "killing babies."

More and more companies, nonprofits and pubic agencies face similar public policy challenges, even when they aren't trying to change a law or get an appropriation. You never know when your bridge project will reincarnate as the "bridge to nowhere." Using peripheral vision, instead of tunnel or blurred vision, can help you see obstacles lurking ahead — or from the side. 

If you see those obstacles, you are in much better position to confront them or, better yet, avoid them altogether.McDonald's was one of the first to ditch LFTB after the pink slime outcry intensified.