NSC's Anette Zimowski setting the record straight on salmon farming
Opposition to salmon-farming is nothing new, but today’s campaigners have become highly organized and vocal, and their efforts span both traditional mainstream media and social media, according to Norwegian Seafood Council Global Operations Public Relations and Communications Manager Anette Zimowski.
Much of the criticism may be based on incorrect facts and supposition, but it still has the power to dent consumer confidence and create damage in the marketplace, Zimowski told SeafoodSource.
In Norway, the world’s largest salmon-farming nation, the NSC puts considerable effort into countering negativity.
“The criticism can feel constant, but it hardens our resolve to put the facts out there and build creditability around the industry,” Zimowski said. “As the industry gets bigger, we should not expect our critics to go away, but aim for the messages to become more nuanced and balanced.”
Norway’s salmon-farming industry has grown considerably in the past 30 years, with production increasing from a harvest of 5,000 metric tons (MT) in 1991 to 1.2 million MT in 2019. Salmon farming’s relative newness as an industry mean its communications and PR infrastructure and strategy is still being developed, Zimowski said.
“The dialogue was initially one-sided, because not many salmon farmers were comfortable talking to the media, nor were they aware of how to present stories in a good way, so negative coverage was allowed to settle,” she said. “We are now seeing a change, where the industry is dominated by companies who take [communications] seriously. There is a new era of openness about the challenges facing them and the efforts being made to get things right. As a result, we are seeing more journalists willing to take a balanced point of view on salmon farming, rather than going for a more sensational, one-sided opinion.”
Zimowski acknowledged the industry will always have challenges, but much can be done to counter outdated or misinterpreted data.
“For example, have we solved the issue of antibiotics? Yes! They are hardly used these days, but if people don’t believe this, then the issue is not solved and has become a comms issue,” she said. “For this reason, we need to keep on communicating about the good things happening; things such as the massive leaps that have been made in technology, feed, and salmon quality, animal welfare, genetics and breeding.”
Media monitoring is an important part of the strategy, and local agencies and PR professionals are called upon to help decide on each course of corrective action.
“Local help was invaluable in China in helping to counter false claims about salmon during the COVID-19 crisis,” she said. “We were swiftly able to reassure the value chain with accurate information.”
The industry’s quick reaction to the situation in China was borne out of painful past experiences, Zimowski said. She cited a French documentary released in 2013 that labeled Norwegian salmon as “toxic,” sparking a level of public mistrust that still lingers.
“It was shocking that a film based largely on incorrect information had such an impact. But the documentary caused severe ripples in the French market. Our reputation score dropped for years, and it is only recently that we have been able to start clawing that back again,” she said.
Working with industry on media training and talking points, and being proactive by welcoming French and other international journalists onto salmon farms, has been crucial in turning the tide of media perception of the industry, Zimowski said.
“We aim to put the facts straight and don’t hide from critical questions. In fact, we don’t hide anything, and as a result, we are no longer seen as being a secretive industry, which was one of the claims in the original documentary,” she said. “The tactic is working, and in the past year, we have received more balanced coverage in France, which has seen our reputation score go up.”
Zimowski likens her work to “taking the battle out of the trenches” and has found that by being proactive, building up key networks, and getting positive new angles into the media, the Norwegian industry is experiencing more balanced coverage of salmon farming.
“We have 14 country offices and work with the Norwegian industry to proactively get stories about seafood and particularly salmon, into discussions, building knowledge,” she said.
In 2019, more than 2,700 positive media clippings were generated by the NSC’s work in the markets it serves, and the continuous stream of articles in the press about Norwegian seafood has helped to balance the dialogue and ensure that the NSC is known as a credible source of information and a first point of contact, Zimowski said.
Learning journeys are also an important part of the NSC PR strategy, and the NSC organizes 20 or so visits annually for journalists, influencers, chefs, researchers, and other stakeholders, who all become part of a valued ambassador network.
On the subject of social media, Zimowski explained that there was no point going into battle, as things can very quickly “get messy” and out of control.
“Social media generates greater emotion and involvement, and you don’t gain anything by going into dialogue with people who won’t respect your point of view. If someone believes they are right, then the facts don’t matter,” she said.
However, if negative comments are posted on the NSC’s promotional channels on Facebook, a fact-based reply is provided, and efforts are made to have clickbait and fake news removed.
In South Korea last year, a negative clickbait campaign quickly trended on social media. Unable to have it removed, local representatives liaised with the Korean food authorities, who ran their own campaign encouraging people not to believe fake news about Norwegian salmon.
With salmon accounting for 70 percent of the global export value of Norwegian seafood, there is a lot at stake, and according to Zimowski, and providing accurate information speedily is the key to staying ahead of the game.
“We accept that clickbait and fake news are here to stay and we can’t do a lot about that,” she said. “But we can be more proactive and make sure we have a larger share of the voice.”
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Salmon Council