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Fonterra case shows link between media training and crisis communication

7 August 2013
Fonterra’s handling of the baby formula scandal shows how vital it is that organisations have both a crisis communication plan and staff equipped with effective media training skills. The first mistake seems to have been the company’s failure to have planned for such a disaster. A crisis communication plan should predict potential crises and have all the materials and key points needed to communicate with stakeholders in each scenario drafted and ready to go at a moment’s notice. This involves preparing material for the media, customers, and anyone else that needs to be informed. The plan also needs to have the channels organised so the stakeholders can find the information. If this is not done in preparation, it can take hours or days for everything to be organised and materials completed and checked by lawyers. This process should be followed by organisations across New Zealand including schools, businesses and any other major group. Media Training skills for those doing the interviews are vital, but first a crisis communication plan must be put in place. In this case, apart from spasmodic press releases for the media, it took Fonterra three days to get detailed information for consumers onto its website. Fonterra also had nowhere online for people to ask questions. A look at Karicare’s Facebook page had many angry comments from those wanting answers. But despite this, it was good PR because questions could be answered. This two-way communication is important these days. Waiting in line on a telephone should not be the only option for concerned parents. Now we come to media training skills. There were mistakes here. Firstly, when announcing the issue, Fonterra initially refused to name the products involved. In any crisis, my advice is to tell the truth, tell it all and tell it now. It was tough on the Fonterra NZ-based spokesperson who had to take the reigns when the CEO went to China and was not available for most interviews. These should have been fronted by the Fonterra Chairman to highlight how seriously the company was taking the issue. The spokesperson who was used did OK under pressure, but his media training skills were lacking in a few areas. For example, he was clearly unsure what brands of baby formula were off limits when on Campbell Live on Monday night. But rather than say he would need to confirm that, he said all Karicare formula was unsafe. This was wrong and led to more damage control. In a nutshell, Fonterra was very slow in communicating and at times offered conflicting information. In this day and age with crisis communication, accuracy and speed is everything.

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Pete is a leading New Zealand media trainer and regular blogger for his company, Media Training NZ . He has helped leaders from all sectors of society communicate with the media and other stakeholders. Pete is a former daily newspaper reporter and press secretary in the New Zealand government. From these roles, he understands the media process from both sides of the camera.

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