Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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1/15/2009
01:38 PM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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With Lives At Stake, Has Kellogg's Failed The Social Web Responsibility Test?

If you work in the IT or PR department of a company whose products could, in some conceivable circumstance, bring harm to your customers, this case study is for you. Ask yourself this question: If you discovered that your product could be carrying a lethal payload as Kellogg's has discovered with two of its peanut butter cracker brands (photo below), what is your next move on the Web? After all, with its multimedia capability, the Web is practically a perfect channel for the social responsibilit

If you work in the IT or PR department of a company whose products could, in some conceivable circumstance, bring harm to your customers, this case study is for you. Ask yourself this question: If you discovered that your product could be carrying a lethal payload as Kellogg's has discovered with two of its peanut butter cracker brands (photo below), what is your next move on the Web? After all, with its multimedia capability, the Web is practically a perfect channel for the social responsibility that must follow such a discovery.Keebler Puts Hold on Cracker SalesThe crisis at hand, and it is a crisis if you ask me (more on that in a second), has to do with a peanut butter-related salmonella outbreak that is potentially connected to 5 deaths and 430 illnesses across the United States. According to an Associated Press story on CBSNews.com: "The national salmonella outbreak has sickened more than 430 people in 43 states. Health officials in Minnesota and Idaho reported Wednesday that one death in each state had been linked to the outbreak. Another death in Minnesota and two in Virginia were confirmed Tuesday.

All five were adults who had salmonella when they died, though their causes of death haven't been determined. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the salmonella outbreak may have contributed."

Kellogg's is involved because the Salmonella contamination has been traced to one of its suppliers of peanut butter paste; Lynchburg-based Peanut Corp. of America. Although none of the illnesses or deaths have been connected to two of Kellogg's products, Kellogg's is apparently voluntarily putting a hold on the sales of those products. Kellogg's CEO David Mackay said in a press release that "We are taking these voluntary actions out of an abundance of caution."

An abundance of caution? Really?

Taking the food off the shelves at grocery stores is certainly one sensible action item. But so far, if you ask me, the abundance Mackay speaks of is hardly abundant at all. For example, if Kellogg's was really that cautious, the home page at its Web site would treat the issue with far more prominence, including a consumer alert of some sort: one that offers images of the products in question so that consumers could instantly identify if they already have any of the products in question in their pantries.

Not that the scope of the affected population really matters, but this came as a major shock to me as a parent. The peanut butter crackers in question are one of the staples of most households with children. Given their convenience, packaging, relative nutritional value, shelf-life, and the fact that kids like them, the Berlind household has a constant supply of the Keebler product pictured here (photo taken this morning). My wife "recharged" that supply yesterday and I plowed through three packages of them myself in the last 24 hours.

By the time I read the news, not only were some number of questionable crackers coursing through my system, but they were packed into the lunch of our son who was already at school. Thankfully, a phone call to the school took care of that problem before snack time. But I can only wonder what, if any, precautions the school took after receiving the phone call from us. Or what about the entire school district? Given how many other lunches the same crackers were undoubtedly packed into, did the school system make any effort to get word out to the cafeteria personnel and students? Probably not.

A visit to the Kellogg's home page reveals two links to the same press release. That's it. Buried in the press release, it says that Kellogg's is "encouraging customers and consumers to hold and not eat these products until regulatory officials complete their investigation of PCA and Kellogg provides further information as to the resolution of this issue." Kellogg's does not offer an RSS feed so consumers can tune into further alerts. It's beholden on the consumer to check back in with Kellogg's.

First, what consumer is going to wade through a press release to get to that one line? Second, where are the images to help consumers, schools, vending machine operators, etc., identify whether or not there's a risk that they must attend to immediately? The press release, for example, says it is putting a hold on Keebler branded Toasted Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers. But upon close inspection (see photo), that's not exactly the name of the product I found in my pantry.

It gets worse. Given the press release's lack of emphasis on consumer-oriented action, most news stories were even more washed down, in some cases offering consumers almost nothing to go on in terms of assessing and acting on any risk. Had, for example, Kellogg's put images with its press release, those images would have undoubtedly accompanied most news stories on the Web thereby fulfilling the Web's promise to get the necessary information in the right hands in a very viral manner. Those images and advisories might have infiltrated the US Food & Drug Administration's special Web page for food-related recalls and alerts as well. But sadly, even the FDA, whose alleged charter is to protect the nation's food supply (amongst other things), simply links to the press release.

Here, of course, is where the social networks, and Kellogg's engagement of them, also could have come into play. There's nothing on the net as viral as status updates and tweets on Facebook and Twitter. If "an abundance of caution" was really what Mackay ordered and Kellogg's had half its act together when it comes to social networking savvy, the major grapevines would have been abuzz with actionable information and imagery.

But they weren't, which is why I'm doing my part by offering you the imagery here, as well as my opinion of Kellogg's conduct in this situation. If Kellogg's concerns were grave enough to pull the product from store shelves, then those concerns also warrant some faster and more consumer-directed action.

If you're at Kellogg's, your first reaction to this might be "How dare he be so critical of our actions." But the correct question for you (and any other company out there that might one day find themselves in the same position as Kellogg's), is whether you want to be asked if you've done enough by the press, or by the lawyer in a wrongful death lawsuit?

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