Smithfield Foods was in the news last week after delivering some disappointing news to thousands of company employees. After hundreds of employees tested positive for coronavirus at a single Sioux Falls, SD processing plant, the company announced that it would be closing that plant “until further notice.”
Local officials in Sioux Falls, as well as Governor Kristi Noem, urged the company to “temporarily suspend” operations for two weeks, so employees could be quarantined and the plant could be disinfected. The message read, in part: “As a critical infrastructure employer for the nation’s food supply chain and a major employer in Sioux Falls, it is crucial that Smithfield have a healthy workforce to ensure the continuity of operations to feed the nation… At the same time, employees need a healthy work environment…”
However, the company took a different direction, initially announcing a 72-hour closure before extending the closure “indefinitely.” Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan suggested this move, among other similar decisions, could have serious consequences: “The closure of this facility, combined with a growing list of other protein plants that have shuttered across our industry is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply… It’s impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running… This will have severe repercussions…”
Difficult and certainly challenging news for people all along the supply chain for protein products, from the farmers who grow the stock to the buyers, processors, retailers, and consumers. According to media reports, just the one Sioux Falls facility supplies 18 million servings of food every day.
Sullivan added that he believes it is his company’s “obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice, we are going to produce food or not.”
From a PR perspective, for companies like Smithfield, there is no easy answer to this dilemma. No matter what choice they make, people will disapprove, and someone is likely to suffer. Given the situation, both the decision and the consequences will be made in the public eye, with people offered the easy opportunity to have an opinion both in traditional media and on social media. This, in turn, prompts responses which will fly fast and furious.
Likely, some will use this issue as an opportunity to push a social or political agenda, and the brand will be pulled into those conversations, even if they opt not to directly participate. This is the challenge facing Smithfield’s PR team, as well as all those at other food brands whose supply chains have been disrupted by this virus. They have to make what they see as the best call knowing many are already preparing to cast stones.