Danger Zone in Food Crisis Management

By Rob Masters

In an ironic twist, the theme of Australian Food Safety Week of late last year – The Danger Zone – could not have been more applicable in the last three months throughout Australia.

To name but a few, there have been –

  • salmonella outbreaks in Brisbane affecting more than 200 people;
  • a $25 million settlement offer by soy milk company Bonsoy to 500 victims food poisoning (perhaps the largest settlement for a food poisoning case in Australian legal history);
  • Woolworths supermarket on the Gold Coast being named as the source of a dead mouse in a rice paper roll;
  • approximately 200 Australian cruise ship passengers bound for New Zealand restricted to their cabins after exhibiting severe food poisoning symptoms; and
  • the recall on of Nanna’s frozen mixed berries and Creative Gourmet mixed berries from the supermarket shelves following notification of Hepatitis A cases in Victoria and New South Wales.

Each year an estimated 5.4 million Australians are affected by food poisoning.

Preparedness for the management of such crises should be a high priority for anyone in the food industry. The visibility an issue can give to a company often leads to its future viability and credibility.

Unfortunately, the investment in preparedness is still neglected today. The adage “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is typical of many companies. They pay lip service to having a crisis plan, having it tested and having it maintained for currency.

Yet in today’s multi-mediia environment, a single tweet can turn an issue into a full-blown crisis of global proportions.

The Nanna case is a typical example. It has brought into focus the quality standards of the berry industry of China and Chile (the source of Nanna’s products) along with that of the packaging processes of China.

The Australian Made campaign called for the purchase of “genuinely Aussie products”, and sectors of the horticultural industry called for greater quality controls on imported foods.

The issue also put further focus on “quality control testing” and the timeliness of activating recalls for “public safety and confidence”.

The issue here has its foundations with leading Melbourne radio commentator Neil Mitchell with his often asked question: “How long did you know about the issue before you activated the recall?”

This is a tipping point for all food related industries in a crisis.

The testing for contamination can take days or weeks, which makes the decision to recall very difficult.

Do you sit and wait for verifiable evidence, or do you do ‘the right thing’ by the community and recall; hoping you have enough crisis management skills and plans in place and ‘reputation goodwill in the bank’ to see you through.

No mater what, you are in ‘the danger zone’. (And the actual ‘danger zone’ for food where bacteria thrives is between 5C and 60C).


The Liberal Leadership and The Bligh Factor

By John Kananghinis

The current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and the fourth Governor of New South Wales, Vice Admiral William Bligh may be separated in their respective tenures by 207 years but they do seem to share a few ‘leadership’ characteristics.

Bligh (yes, the Bligh of the Bounty and progenitor of former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh) was a true master of his profession, an expert navigator, skilled cartographer and a highly regarded naval Captain who served, with distinction in battle, under Nelson.

He was mentored by the famed Captain James Cook and was Sailing Master of the Resolution on Cook’s ill-fated third voyage.

He seemed to be at his best in adversity. Many underestimated him and he lived to prove them wrong. When cast adrift in an open boat, with his small band of loyalists, by the Bounty mutineers led by his chosen first mate and a man he considered a friend, he completed an unthinkable 6,700km journey across the Pacific to arrive, with the loss of only one man, in Timor.

Years later, when the relatively new colony of New South Wales looked to be getting out of hand it was Bligh, known as a sound administrator and strict but fair disciplinarian, who was sent to clean things up. However, his confrontational style quickly put him offside with the colony’s power elite and then with his own troops. The result was the Rum Rebellion of 1808 that saw Bligh marched out of Government House in Parramatta and returned to England.

Bligh was described by some who knew him as an “enlightened naval officer” who had one or two faults. For example he would make “dogmatic judgements which he felt himself entitled to make; and he saw fools about him too easily … he never learnt that you do not make friends of men by insulting them”.

Do I need to highlight the parallels?

Prime Minister Abbott is no doubt a good and capable man, possessing mastery of the combative art of politics. Yet he seems friendless, unlikeable and now subject to ructions within his own team.

He was mentored by a legend of his party and was a faithful lieutenant to Prime Minister Howard even as the 2007 electoral rout became obvious to all.

Subsequently, when things turned a little pear-shaped, the electorate, somewhat reluctantly, turned to him but they have never loved him. And even if they did, as has been proved for millennia, the mob turns easily and quickly.

When the PM made his February 2 (post QLD electoral disaster) speech to the National Press Club he declared that government is not a popularity contest. In today’s political reality that is just plain wrong. Leaders not well regarded by the people will sooner, rather than later, be dispatched by their own side.

The PM’s Press Club address and subsequent interviews also suggest a lack of true understanding of the language of inclusiveness required to take the people with him.

It is difficult to support the claim of being more “consultative and collegial” when he keeps saying “my government… my plan” and referring to “what I will do for you”. Such paternalistic language perhaps betrays that his true view is that the people should leave it all to him as he knows best.

That may sound harsh, but use of language in leadership positions is very important when dealing with an ever more educated and critical electorate (or business workforce).

The PM’s continuing use of such language may suggest that he, like Bligh, cannot help but stick to his dogma and make the “captain’s calls” he feels he is entitled to make, even if they cost him his closest followers.

Inclusive language such as ‘together we will address the challenges of the future’ or even ‘as Australians together we will …” would certainly start to soften his image.

After all Churchill did not say: ‘I will fight them on the beaches …”.

In the end, even though his enemies underestimate him at their peril, it may all be too late for Tony Abbott. Despite the many good things his government has done, or at least begun to do, he may suffer the same fate as William Bligh on the Bounty and in New South Wales two centuries ago, i.e. cast adrift by those he thought to be friends; a great captain in a fight, highly skilled and intelligent, but lacking in the necessary common touch and flexibility to keep the rank and file by his side for the long term.

It may be that our current Prime Minister is closer in character to Admiral William Bligh than he would care to admit.


Just Saying NO! persuades no one

By John Kananghinis

Sometimes it is necessary for those in business to convince policy makers of the merits, or otherwise, of a proposed course of action.

It may well be that the natural business reaction in a particular case is to ‘just tell them no’. No, your idea will not make things better. No, your new policy will not create jobs. No, it is not more efficient. No, it will not fix a perceived problem.

The trouble is if the policy makers have invested political capital in effecting change just saying no is what they expect from vested interests. The bare facts of the matter will not necessarily carry the day. What may be required is an appreciation of where the policy makers are coming from and a more nuanced approach that may result in a policy outcome that avoids the worst potential outcomes of a new proposal.

This is basic human nature. Attack generates defence. A consultation that accepts some need for change, which highlights the pitfalls and then goes on to suggest solutions, is far more likely to get a hearing.

When governments talk of  ‘reform’  one thing is certain, there will be changes. They have staked their political futures on it. The task for impacted businesses is, with the benefit of their deep industry knowledge, to highlight areas of unintended consequence and difficulty, and to seek a seat at the table that works on balancing the reform with relative stability.

Of course it may be that business wants the ‘reform’ in question, then it is even more important to be part of the process and not a spectator.

The skills required will be to know what to say to whom, when and how to say it. That is what true ‘lobbying’ is all about. Threats, deals and calling on old friendships don’t and shouldn’t work in a transparent democracy.  Reasoned representations that help policy makers see the real-world impacts of their actions, and suggesting how those impacts can be as positive as possible, do.

ICG and its affiliates can offer decades of experience in working with businesses seeking to communicate and consult with State and Federal Governments on policy reforms and regulatory changes. That experience allows for the development of strategies that engage rather than alienate, strategies that increase the chances of a better outcome.

Stakeholder Audit whiteboard chart

External Stakeholder Audits Hold the Key

RMKA has recently completed external stakeholder audits for two substantial community organisations.

In both cases, the studies turned up a rich lode of usable information.

External stakeholder audits involve finding out what the people you deal with think of you. It’s a gutsy initiative but an essential one in the interests of organisational improvement – particularly in meeting stakeholder expectations.

The audit begins with the consultancy and client organisation agreeing on information objectives: What do we need to know? The client then produces a list of potential interviewees whose opinions the organisation would like to plumb. Frequently, the consultancy will have input into the list, but most of that information needs to come from the client.

The consultancy then drafts a personalised letter that the client sends to the potential interviewees seeking their participation.

In our experience, it is rare for people to refuse to participate, even though we are typically dealing at very senior levels.

The consultancy then organises and conducts one-on-one interviews with the participants.

Once interviews have been completed, the consultancy prepares a report that summarises the findings of the interviews and provides a set of concrete recommendations for follow-up action by the client. The exercise normally takes two-three months to complete – largely because of the difficulty we have in pinning down senior people to commit to interview times. The interviews typically run for about 45 minutes.

We don’t filter or soften messages and interviewees are inevitably candid and expansive once they get into the swing of the interview. This means the report can be quite confronting.

The study is biased in that we are deliberately looking for problems because it is the problems that give an organisation a platform for improvement.

But despite being assailed by a flurry of negative messages, client organisations inevitably take the messages on board and follow through with actions to remedy the problems. The organisations are well prepared for negative comment: they made the hard decision when they commissioned the study.

ICG consultants are always invited to present the findings and recommendations to senior executive teams and often to Boards of Directors.

External stakeholder audits are a valuable tool for business improvement. They should be an essential planning device for all large organisations.


Garry Oliver