July 2014 Boss vs. Intern – The Debate

What’s with the trend of shooting the messenger?  I’m reminded of the advice I got when I first entered the PR industry from an experienced professional: “Don’t pick a fight in print with a guy who buys ink by the barrel.”  Now I get that the metaphor’s outdated, but the concept is not.  Going after the folks who deliver news you don’t like makes your organization look thin-skinned, defensive and downright guilty of something.

 

Well, that’s how Andrea sees it, but Jacob – the AOMC intern and trend-master extraordinaire – disagrees.  So we offer you our two sides of the issue and you decide.

First some background from Jacob:

If you want to know how much damage a bad name can do, consider “Pink Slime.” Back in 2012, there was widespread panic when ABC News did a series showing this meat byproduct being produced. The Pink Slime name they tagged it with hit a nerve.  Consumers demanded the product be taken off the shelves and within months of the series airing, sales were down 80 percent, several factories were closed and thousands of employees lost their jobs. Several major grocery chains refused to carry anything containing the stuff.

According to it manufacturer, Beef Products, Inc., the story was overblown and the panic unnecessary.  The USDA has confirmed that their “lean finely textured beef” (the aforementioned “Pink Slime”) is completely safe.  In fact, the substance is still an important part government’s School Lunch program.   For the record, Pink Slime is simply two ingredients. 100 percent lean beef trimmings treated with tiny bursts of ammonia hydroxide to kill E. coli and other dangerous contaminants.

Before the story ran, Beef Products Inc. had four state-of-the art plants, more than 1,300 employees and was expanding aggressively. Today, the South Dakota Company’s revenues have plummeted from more than $650 million to about $130 million a year and three of its plants have closed. Company officials blame the abrupt falloff on the broadcasts and their use of the term “Pink Slime.  They filed a law suit seeking at least $1.2 billion in damages against ABC creating one of the most high-stakes defamation court battles in U.S. history.

It won’t be an easy case for BPI to win.  They’ll need show that ABC negligently reported a false statement of fact that injured their reputation. ABC never said BPI’s product was dangerous, and courts have repeatedly offered broad protection for journalists.  But by calling a food product “slime” 137 times over the span of nearly four weeks on its newscasts, its website and on Twitter, did ABC make the public think lean finely textured beef was unsafe?

What the case boils down to is the definition of the word “slime.”  BPI points to the Oxford Dictionary, which describes slime as a “moist, soft, and slippery substance, typically regarded as repulsive,” and the American Heritage Dictionary, which calls it “vile or disgusting matter.”

But ABC argues that “slime” is a fitting description of the company’s product. They point to more neutral definitions of the term, citing another entry in the American Heritage Dictionary that calls slime a “thick, sticky, slippery substance.” Definitions aside, ABC’s point out that courts have rejected defamation claims based on allegations of “name calling.”  For example, restaurant reviewers are protected in their reviews, even if they describe the food in ways that give the chef heart palpitations.

Is filing a law suit the way to go to recover a reputation.  I say yes and here’s why:

From Jacob: It won’t be an easy case to win, but I think it could be an effective PR tactic to make sure this sort of media hype doesn’t happen again.  It’s already worked.  BPI has silenced the media through the threat of expensive litigation.  And consider this: Most defamation cases are dropped or settled before they get to court, so they don’t have to win.  If that happens, we’ll just remember that they filed the suit in an effort to uncover the truth about their “lean finely textured beef.” That might just be the start of their recovery from this media assault on their reputation.  And you can be sure ABC isn’t going to risk calling it “Pink Slime” once the suit is settled.   Sometimes, you don’t have to sue to win. Sometimes, you just have to launch the attack.  

From Andrea: I disagree.  I’m not faulting BPI for striking back.  But I do think that filing the suit is a mistake.  Whether they win or lose, the company’s law suit is causing many people to revisit the issue and I’m thinking that’s only going to make the outcome worse. Win, lose or draw, what people are going to remember is that BPI chose to go after the folks that delivered the bad news instead of countering the bad news with the facts.  And, by the way, the last time someone tried to do this was when the grocery chain Food Lion went after ABC in 1992.  The network sent “Prime Time Live” reporters to investigate claims that the retailer was selling spoiled meat. The broadcast hurt the chain’s business and Food Lion sued.  But the lawsuit made things worse.  Between the suit and the appeals it dragged out the issue for a decade.  Food Lion lost and all I remember is that they didn’t like what ABC uncovered.

I’m not saying that any reputation manager worth her salt shouldn’t go into high gear defending a client that’s been wrongly portrayed.  What I am saying is to do it more constructively than saying, “Johnny called me a bad name, Mommy.”

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