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.

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Ronn Torossian is the Founder, President and CEO of New York-based 5W Public Relations. He has overseen the company's rapid growth and expansion to the Inc. 500 list, as well as provided counsel to hundreds of companies, including members of the Fortune 500, Inc. 500 and Forbes 400. His work spans global interests, corporate entities, high-profile individuals, regional business entities, government agencies and academic institutions - both on routine public relations matters and extremely sensitive issues. One of the foremost public relations experts in the U.S., Torossian is known for his aggressive, results-focused orientation, as well as his close working relationships with members of the media, influencers, decision makers, politicians and celebrities. At 5W Public Relations, Torossian's client experience has included programs for Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, Barnes & Noble, Cantor Fitzgerald, IHOP, McDonald's, Evian, EDS, VeriSign, XM Radio, Seagram's, The Loews Regency, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, Marriott Hotels, Vail Resorts, Pamela Anderson, Snoop Dogg, the Government of Israel, and others. Referred to by The New York Post as a "publicity guru," by Fox News as a "high-powered PR CEO," by Tyra Banks as a "crisis management guru," and by CNN as "a leading PR expert," Torossian is regularly featured in and quoted by the media, including by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, NBC, The New York Times, and others. CBS National News said "Ronn Torossian knows spin," and a New York Times feature story on Torossian referred to him as "The consummate hard-driving, scrappy NY publicist." Earlier in his career, Torossian was a Vice President/Group Director for one of The InterPublic Group's (IPG) largest PR agencies, where he was responsible for significant client growth and successful client programs, including work for Clinique, Fox News Channel, DHL, Hard Rock Café and others. A resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Torossian was named to the Advertising Age "40 Under 40" list, PR Week's "40 Under 40" List, is a regular lecturer at universities and conferences, a member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and a board member of numerous non-profit organizations.