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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2006June — Editorial

Viral Marketing
We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about avian flu. We should embrace the opportunity.

Each year at the Elliot Leadership Conference, Rick Berman tells us who’s out to get us. I don’t always agree with Berman, industry lobbyist and president of Berman and Company. So I hate to admit that he’s usually ahead of the curve in knowing what issue chain restaurants will be demonized for next. Throughout the years, he’s warned us about drunk driving, obesity and unions. This time he had avian flu on the list.

Scare Tactics
He pointed out that consumers are scared. Government officials and scientists don’t agree on what we should expect, some warning that up to one-third of American citizens could die. ABC painted a frightening picture early in May with its television movie, “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America.”

Berman argued, and I agree, that the restaurant industry needs to educate consumers about how safe poultry is and would continue to be even if there were an avian-flu outbreak. And it needs to tell them before their fear leads them to stop buying it.

I don’t know of a chain whose leadership hasn’t at least discussed, “What if the worst happens?” (If you haven’t, you’d better.) Some have been willing to discuss their contingency plans, created just in case the avian flu makes its way to the United States and is transmitted to humans. They might have commercials produced and in the can. Flyers and signs might be in an easily accessible location, ready for the moment the red phone in the office rings.

Spread the News
Some companies like KFC and Popeyes have already begun marketing to consumers that their chicken is safe to eat, though they don’t actually mention avian flu.

Why are we afraid to tell customers what this industry does to keep them safe? This is an opportunity to open a dialogue about what restaurant operators and their supply-chain partners are already doing to ensure that we have the safest food supply in the world. You test levels of microorganisms—the good and the bad—at every step of the food chain from field to fork. You track the temperature of a piece of fish from the moment it’s caught until it’s placed in front of a customer—and often advise how to reheat the leftovers safely for lunch tomorrow. (Again, if you’re not doing those things, catch up.)

You have already taken the steps necessary to protect your customers, and you continue to raise the bar, as examined in “Neverending Story,” the article on Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill’s food-safety. The industry is ready to share this story. It’s a good one.

Your Side of the Story
As Berman will tell you, there are plenty of people out there willing to talk about how dangerous chain restaurants can be: Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food, who specializes in out-of-date and heavily one-sided imagery of meat processing, agriculture and quick-service restaurants. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which would be happy if you never sold another glass of wine. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which would be happy if you never sold another hamburger.

Consumers need to hear your story, but not their version.

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