THE phrase “bring home the bacon” usually denotes success, depicting a situation where a person or a group is able to bring back results from an undertaking. Sadly, in the case of Asian swine flu (ASF), the opposite appears to be happening. The Philippines is the world’s seventh biggest importer of pork; that statistic alone shows how big an impact ASF can have on our market if the spread goes unchecked.
According to our own agriculture officials, the Philippine hog industry is losing as much as one billion pesos a month due to ASF infections. The initial communications momentum gained by the government in addressing the ASF situation was good: there were continuous and constant reminders to the public that ASF is not harmful to humans, only hogs. Pork is safe to eat, they said, already anticipating the scare that the news will cause for consumers.
Unfortunately, that initial momentum was lost when the Department of Agriculture announced that traces of ASF were found in processed pork products, but withheld the name of the manufacturer for unknown reasons. Further testing is needed, they said, before considering a mandatory recall of these products. I’m not quite sure what the DA was trying to achieve with this strategy, but going public with supposedly contaminated products with initial or partial results did more harm than good. Doing so was counterintuitive and resulted in exacerbating the very perception that they were trying to fight: that pork is safe to eat and ASF does not infect humans. And here you see the result: there was backlash over the decision to keep the brand name secret, with citizens saying that the public ought to be informed so they could avoid buying these products. Other manufacturers also responded by saying that their products are ASF-free and safe for public consumption, trying to avert the negative impact that the DA announcement will have on their product sales.
Withholding the brand name from the public effectively tainted the products of all other meat processors, and the talk of recall without a definitive conclusion from testing runs contrary to the DA’s initial premise that ASF is not harmful to humans. Before this gets out of hand, the DA must manage the flow of information being shared with the public, and kick the bad habit of just sharing information because a microphone is thrust on their faces. While executing measures to avert the further spread of ASF is indeed a priority, the DA must give enough attention to the way their actions are being communicated to the public.
And here’s where every communications person’s perpetual frustration comes in: in a situation such as this involving public health and safety, the proper planning of the strategy for communications is as important as the operations strategy to actually quell the crisis.
The reality is most of our officials get caught up in trying to solve the problem without thinking about how bad communications can exacerbate the situation. Hopefully, Secretary Dar and his team can pay closer attention to their interface with the public through media to avoid adding more fuel to the already raging fire, at the expense of our hog raisers who are already feeling the pinch the entire ASF situation is causing. The belated action of forming an inter-agency task force involving other departments can still be useful, as the DA needs assistance from the Department of Interior and Local Government to talk to local government units and get their cooperation to stave the spread of the disease. Here’s to hoping that this tactic works soon, and fast.