Michael Fineman
Michael Fineman

With COVID, calamitous weather and a widening human divide nationwide, nature appears to be running amok and making a direct hit on safety and health. Ultimately, as studies have shown, it has manifested in a lessening of trust in each other, in our institutions and in our way of life, all long taken for granted. For the food industry—as producers, retailers and responsible employers—the impact of the last year will reverberate for decades. As communicators, however, this isn’t a doomsday scenario. We’ve seen historic marketplace and cultural meteors before.

Food businesses and executives who make smart, credible and genuine moves will lead, but it’s going to require a doubling down on consumer trust and embracing change. The question of who and what you trust must be answered, and we’re all responsible for demonstrating the answers with well-considered decisions and activities. I believe that means our public relations must be centered, discerning and authentic.

What’s changed across the board? The speed by which critical information—and misinformation—is shared and the crucial nature of getting it right, especially when it comes to human health and safety. So, how best to build trust and meet consumer, customer and employee expectations? If we get it right, shareholder expectations will be met accordingly.

Our experience in helping clients successfully communicate consumer messages tells us to focus on building trust from the inside out. Take a brutally honest look at your corporate reputation and brand, how consumers and your own people view your organization. It can’t be just about food or business as usual. The old saw, “doing well by doing good,” is especially relevant today.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar. '21 Food & Beverage PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

Here are some pathways our own food and beverage clients are taking:

Increase employee communications

Out of sheer necessity, communicate often and visibly through these COVID times. Our daily business lives have been upset: to remote or not to remote, to renew the lease on our office space, or find a less sizable option. Many companies and employees are at loose ends to find their way and some regularity in daily work life. Provide brief, regular, fact-based updates to your website, your employees and your customers. Demonstrate your partnership with regulatory and public health entities. Especially during these times, it’s these public guardians that consumers will trust most (over the word of for-profit companies). Communicate with a tone of concern for your audience’s health and welfare. Tone is often more important than content; optimism and encouragement never hurt.

Connect with your community

Remember your local communities where many of your employees and their families live and where you often have an outsized shadow. Your town’s tax base is often, in large part, dependent on your decisions. Local businesses and civic organizations will appreciate your support and patronage wherever you can provide it. Are you able to go the extra mile by working with a local medical partner to provide your workforce with vaccines? Are you able to contribute with scholarships, sponsorships, speaking/virtual presentation opportunities with the local community college? Can you organize team volunteers to contribute to local projects and/or disaster areas? Donations of much-needed supplies?

Gut check your reputation

Re-vitalize your assets and allies, especially your employees. Take an honest audit of commentary on social media, internal chat channels and employee forums. Is your tried and true approach still working? Are employee concerns going unaddressed, purposely or from lack of resources? How can you really improve, and soon? Set aggressive timelines and take action where you can. Have you recognized those employees who went the distance for the company over the past year? Are there new employee voices emerging as leaders that may help the organization evolve?

How credible is your message?

Are there local or industry experts that would be valuable to enlist for expert counsel and for referral sources when the media calls? Have you conducted studies and surveys that could be of interest to others? Are there forecasts or other research—trade or medical—that you’ve used to help guide your initiatives? Leverage them and keep eyes open for new partners who can support you and add credibility to your brand promise and values.

Update your game plan

Don’t wait until there’s some semblance of “normal” to evaluate your communications strategy. Even though we are far from the “end” of this challenging period, all of us have seen organizational changes, personnel shifts, and the re-ordering of priorities. Take a fresh look at your scenario plans and crisis preparation. Does your approach incorporate the new resources your team has leaned on in urgent situations over the past year? Lessons learned? Review your most reliable and/or updated tools for pushing out content and measuring impact. Revisit new threats to your business. Take an audit of competitors in the news. Think about developing trends, threats to your business and community, potential disasters and hazards, and competitive concerns that could have a pernicious effect. Then, act. Develop a position for these issues and scenarios, no matter how brief, that can be updated and customized when needed (response speed in hairy situations is so critical). Determine which events or developments might trigger your need to address the situation. Messaging? Medium? Spokesperson? Use this time to regroup wisely and retire outdated practices. It all adds up to help bulwark brand trust.

Social distance isn’t for social media

Now’s the time to lean into social media to connect with your audience where they’re choosing to spend time. Keep up with potentially new audiences, look for ways to genuinely connect with your followers and build loyalty through content that matters to them. This isn’t the time to overproduce or overspend; there’s no need to be perfect or slick. It’s about telling your story authentically and contributing to the real-life conversations and experiences that help us all get through these times together. And, remember, you’re talking to the end customer. There’s power in that.

Be willing to change

Innovation is what fuels our industry and our personal growth. The changes in our professional world will continue, as will the changes in our daily lives. A trust mindset for business and for ourselves will help evolve how we communicate, how we connect, how we function, and how we support a constantly shifting consumer marketplace and food supply. Be open to change. Communicate trustworthiness and the promise reflected by your brand.


Michael Fineman is President of Fineman PR.