Damage control


Steven Hedlund

Published on
September 25, 2011

New York Times food writer Mark Bittman’s misguided, one-sided column on canned tuna — and whether it’s time again to boycott the lunch staple — drew the ire of the National Fisheries Institute after it appeared a week ago. And who can blame the U.S.-based organization? Bittman apparently made no effort to get the industry’s take on the matter, attributing much of the column’s content to Greenpeace.

Bittman is entitled to his opinion. But he made no attempt to reach out to NFI, StarKist, Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee or any industry source, which is puzzling.

NFI reacted to the column by writing a letter to Bittman’s managing editor, lambasting the writer’s lack of research. The industry group has been much more aggressive about countering misinformation in the mainstream media. For too long the industry has been pushed around by the media, which is quick to write off the industry’s view as bias and put much more faith in the opinion of Greenpeace and other NGOs, as if they’re without an agenda.

Will that ever change? Probably not. But what is changing is that the public isn’t reading as many of these misguided, one-sided columns as in the past, according to Gavin Gibbons, NFI’s director of media relations.

The story goes like this: A reporter contacts Gibbons to follow up on a lead, he deems the lead misinformed and backs up his assertion, and the story never runs. That success is difficult to measure and isn’t visible, admits Gibbons, but he’s confident that NFI is gaining traction with the mainstream media. For example, a reporter at a prominent TV news outlet recently said to Gibbons: “Someone in my newsroom told me that I should contact you since I’m doing a story about seafood.” That’s encouraging.

Greenpeace isn’t taking its foot off of the accelerator, so NFI continues to fight back, countering the misinformation through press releases, interviews with reporters and its own media vehicles, such as TunaForTomorrow.com, set up to set the record straight when it comes to America’s favorite finfish.

The industry has learned that it can’t just be reactive and expect to make progress. Proactively reaching out to the media to cut off a potentially damaging story or column at the source is essential. As an editor, I appreciate e-mails and calls from media relations professionals offering a hand on a controversial subject. Maybe Bittman could use a little help to balance out his next anti-seafood rant.

Editor’s note: Looking to polish your company’s image? Check out April Forristall’s latest Media Watch column on social media’s growing influence on seafood. 

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