The strawberry crisis - where to from here?

Strawberries - A crisis of confidence.

There’s no doubt that the crisis facing the strawberry industry could not have come at a worse time for the strawberry farmers of Queensland.   Within days of a needle being found in a punnet of supermarket-bought strawberries, and at the peak of the Queensland strawberry season, all punnets of Queensland strawberries were withdrawn from sale.  Not only is this a major blow to strawberry farmers and the people who work in the processing, packing and distribution chain, but it now appears that a number of overseas trade partners have blocked Australian strawberry imports as well.

This crisis can’t be classed as a “usual” corporate crisis situation.  There’s no specific company scandal such as executive misconduct, an act of violence, equipment malfunction or security breach. In fact, there’s not really a specific company that’s been targeted.  It’s an industry-wide crisis, and as such needs to be addressed in a different way than the usual corporate crisis situation.

Usually, crisis situations are dealt with through a proactive crisis management plan – acknowledge the problem, get outside help, seek to isolate the specific brands and markets involved, monitor key public messaging and respond on the front foot.



So what can the strawberry industry do?

The biggest challenge facing the strawberry industry is to restore public confidence and provide ongoing certainty about the safety of the processes and distribution of their product.  They need to take charge of the situation, and for this to occur, communication is key.  The public need reassurance that measures have been taken to protect consumers from further incidents.  Some measures are already in place, for instance, metal detector checks from the production process through to the supermarket sale.  This is a positive and active measure that will help reassure the consumer.

The industry could also publicly seek assistance and support from the major chains and distribution outlets.  After all, they can suffer reputational damage as a result of this crisis too.

And never underestimate the power of the public to rally behind an Aussie farmer in trouble.  The public campaign to “cut it up, don’t cut it out” is gaining traction and being promoted through TV, radio and social media, and with a couple of high profile, fair dinkum Aussies endorsing the campaign, it can only help to generate a positive reaction to the strawberry “brand”.  The industry could also get social media and high profile personalities involved – there’s nothing like social media to spread a message.

Traditional media can also play a part, with breakfast TV and radio, evening news and lifestyle programs focussing on positive stories, and support of the farmer and their communities.

Why not give strawberries away, not throw them away.  Hand out cut up strawberries in high profile locations, with information about their nutritional benefits and taste qualities.  There’s nothing positive about images of strawberries being bulldozed.

And finally, get a PR firm involved.  They will present, craft and manage media messages and attention, organise a communications plan for both now and in the future and implement a risk management plan for any future crisis situations.  A good investment and something that would really have helped in hindsight.


And what happens if they don’t do something?

The industry must proactively respond.  Otherwise, they risk the remainder of this season’s sales, and possibly next year’s as well.  The steps are clear – remove the risk, control the commentary, restore confidence and get the public on board.   And buy some delicious strawberries!

We’ve been interviewed by the BBC on this story for their Asia Business Review show on Friday 21st September, where we highlighted the points raised above. We’ve also been interviewed by their online edition. You can read that article here