March 2013.

Continuing with my previous article, “The importance of communicating well when things go badly. Three cases of food crisis (I)”, here are the second case:

MAY 2010: INTERFRESA broadcast of a negative report on strawberry crops in Huelva. 

Under the title of “Seasonal fruit, the battle of the Strawberry” a report was issued on Sunday 3 May on the programme “Combien ça coute?”(CCC) by the French TF1 television chain, which compared Spanish and French strawberries to “try to understand” why there was so much price difference between them.  A team from the programme travelled to Huelva, “where strawberries are produced cheaper” and where this fruit “is an institution”.

“Combien ça coute?”(CCC), or ‘what is its cost?’ is one of the historical broadcasts of the first television chain in France presented from the very time it started by Jean Pierre Pernaut (1950), a journalist of great prestige in France who continuously since 1998 has presented the TF1 one o’clock News, the news of greatest audience in this time band.  Since 2008, he has been accompanied on the programme by the journalist Justine Fraioli.

This was a clearly negative, manipulated report on the production of Spanish strawberries in which it showed the misuse of phytosanitary products and the working conditions of the agricultural labourers and the quality of the strawberry was questioned even from the point of view of smell and taste.  In this case, there was no food alert, but rather a considerable media attack on the principal importing country of Spanish strawberries, France.

This required another kind of communication strategy from that used in the case of peppers from Almería, for most accusations were also false or at least exaggerated, as we were able to see in the field.

The sector contracted us in principle to counter-attack with another documentary, but we did not recommend this.

While we went about checking the truth of each accusation, we saw that the Andalusian Government, the Provincial Council of Huelva and the sector itself were making a great effort and achieving very good results in each of the areas that the French documentary had attacked: use of phytosanitary products, foreign workforce, respect for the Doñana National Park and the use of aquifers. If the French journalists had visited the Spanish plantations with a more professional and objective attitude, they would also have realised these efforts and developments.

Our recommended strategy was to go to the “wolf’s mouth”, to go to Paris and to invite all of the critical journalists and importing customers, and in a press conference to tell them, “Our interest is the same as yours, to offer French consumers the best strawberries, the most healthy and flavoursome fruit, and this is the reason we have been making a great effort for years”. To demonstrate it, we reported with official data and studies on everything that had been done and achieved in the last 10 years in the areas that had been criticised. It worked.

The lesson learned from this case is that if investment is made in doing things well but this is not reported, competitiveness and immunity to attacks are lost.