There are public relations lessons to be learned from the
botulism scare for Fonterra and the wider agricultural
industry, Federated Farmers vice-president William Rolleston
Although the majority of the media had done a good job of
covering the issue, there were some ''irresponsible'' stories
written about the issue and it provided lessons for the
agriculture industry, Dr Rolleston said.
''I think the message that it was a precautionary recall
wasn't really put out there,'' he said.
''It was portrayed as a definitive fact that this [whey
protein] had botulism.
''When these things come out, there's a temptation to cover
Otago Daily Times editor Murray Kirkness said it was
not the media's job to decide whether an issue was positive
or negative and he felt in ''general terms'' the issue had
been covered fairly and accurately.
''If you put the words botulism and scare and Fonterra in a
sentence, it's pretty hard to see how that's going to be
portrayed as a positive,'' Mr Kirkness said.
Many in the agriculture industry, including Federated Farmers
president Bruce Wills, have expressed the view that New
Zealand's media portrays the industry in a negative light.
However, Mr Kirkness said he believed it was a reality for
many industries that the only time they received nationwide
coverage was at times of scandal.
Regionally, many newspapers, including the Otago Daily
Times and Southland Times, covered the rural
sector in depth, he said.
''Every Monday, we run rural pages,'' Mr Kirkness said.
''And most of those would be seen as quite positive news.''
Dr Rolleston said he did not believe the ''media was entirely
responsible'' for how the issue was portrayed and Fonterra
were going to ''have to take a look at themselves''.
Fonterra announced on August 3 that whey protein produced in
May might contain bacteria which causes botulism - a disease
which affects the nervous and respiratory systems and can
result in death.
The announcement resulted in cessation of some imports of
dairy products by some countries, including China.
The Ministry for Primary Industries announced late last month
the whey protein contained the bacteria Clostridium
sporogenes, which was not usually a food safety risk, and
not Clostridium botulinum as was feared.
''There definitely are some messages to be learned in terms
of communication,'' Dr Rolleston said.
He felt Fonterra had got things right in terms of food safety
for the most part, although he ''wouldn't give them an A+'',
but their public relations left something to be desired, he
''Accuracy of information is pretty paramount,'' Dr Rolleston
''The moment you need to change a story, your credibility is
However, in the long-term, he believed the way Fonterra
handled the recall and provided information as it became
available would increase its international standing.
When contacted by Southern Rural Life last week, a
spokesman for Fonterra said it would be ''inappropriate'' for
the company to comment on the matter.
- Timothy Brown.