The salmon farming industry has been spewing apologies left and right in the past few months, beginning in October, when Cooke Aquaculture CEO Glenn Cooke stated he was “deeply saddened” by the irresponsible fish welfare practices exposed in a video by watchdog Compassion Over Killing.
In November, former Mowi CEO Alf-Helge Aarskog apologized for a massive die-off in Newfoundland, calling it “a mistake that [the] company made while responding to a significant, unexpected, and unfortunate climate event.”
In the most recent slate of events, Cermaq, responding to a video made by controversial NGO Sea Shepherd showing that 130,000 fish have died due to algal bloom, issued not an apology, but an explanation.
How well these responses will hold up, only time will tell; they are now property of the internet, alongside the footage that summoned them.
It has been a hard month for the industry. As IntraFish Editor Drew Cherry wrote in a column, “Certainly some of the crises that unfolded last month could not have been avoided. Salmon farming is as much at the whims of geopolitical and climate chaos as any other industry.”
Unfortunately, Cherry is part of the minority who believe this. As a new reporter coming into the complicated world of seafood, I am less easily convinced than my editor that incidents like these are unavoidable.
Assuaging fears is something the seafood industry has yet to perfect
Sure, I’ve learned that phrases like “die-off” or “mass mortality” are not always environmental catastrophes, perhaps just a very bad day in the office. But to me, and certainly to the average reader, the headlines these incidents incurred all have the same effect: they cause fear and alarm.
And assuaging fears is a response that the aquaculture industry has yet to perfect.
There are various, sometimes contradictory, crisis management strategies out there. But in the new world of social media, where a damning photo or video can quickly make the rounds, the studies seem to agree on one thing: Communication needs to be timely, fast, and up-to-date.
Fran O'Leary, a PR expert with a decade of experience within the seafood industry, agrees.
"If companies don’t act and communicate fast, then they leave a vacuum in which misinformation can grow," she said.
"And I think taking control of the narrative is important to try and make sure that their side is shown."
"Say we’re in an organization where one function can work well on its own. They [still] need to coordinate on elements of their work which they wouldn’t have had to work on more closely."
Find the decision-maker
"You need really clear sign-off roots... Who is the decision maker? What are we saying? Who is saying it? Who are we saying it to? Sign-off roots is one of the things I suspect that can be slow."
"Social media needs to be viewed as strategic rather than an add-on communication." A study by another PR agency, Crisp, shows that 40 percent of consumers are more likely to share news of a crisis on social media.
Practice: crisis simulations
"It’s really good practice to do scenarios regularly, where the team that is involved would play out so that [they] get agile working together. I would definitely recommend more social media simulation as part of the role play. I think that’s one area other industries do more regularly than in the seafood industry."
In the court of public opinion, there is no time to lay out all of the facts. Consumers get the bulk of their news from headlines. Fortunately, a recent study found that media headlines around the world are now more generally positive towards aquaculture.
On the flipside, the same study found that salmon farming was more divisive, with 52 percent of headlines being negative, 62 percent of those coming from Canada. It also suggests that an “environmental catastrophe” (however a reader might understand one) is one of the biggest motivators for taking a stance against aquaculture.
Another study found the ability to frame an issue was one of the most significant factors in determining support for aquaculture and wild-catch fisheries. In one section, it cited interviewees saying that the industry too often relied on “science and facts” as opposed to being relateable or empathetic.
"If there are scientific or technical complexities, citizens want to understand," O'Leary said.
"If the company has more expertise into what’s happening... there can often be a degree of responsibility on the company to explain what is happening. And to explain it in such a way that is accessible."
Empathy appears to sometimes be a stronger motivator than facts. In one of the most famous cases of PR crisis management, Johnson & Johnson in 1982 responded to cyanide deaths linked to their Tylenol brand by recalling all of its products.
The deaths were never solved, but the company recovered on its losses, climbing back to own 30 percent of the market share after the incident, against the expectations of experts.
It would appear the financial incentive to manage a crisis hasn’t presented itself just yet: a quick scan at Mowi’s stock prices show that the Newfoundland incident hardly caused a blip.
But it is only a matter of time until the next crisis, and the inevitable PR storm that follows.
Aarskog’s apology came nearly a month after the headlines started. It's a far cry from the one-hour window recommended by PR experts, and still miles better than the alternative that the industry usually opts for: radio silence. One that is filled, rather consistently, by the voices of watchdogs and opponents, echoing the alarms.
And salmon farming opponents know how to get a message across: loudly and personally.
"We can and will stop it," Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, wrote to IntraFish in an email response to an article, referring to the industry at large.
"We must continue to be relentless, loud, intrusive and steadfast as we continue to intervene against what is a major ecological crime against humanity."
It might not be nice to keep asking salmon farmers to explain -- or even harder, apologize for -- incidents that they cannot control, but it is also necessary.
At the very least, the industry needs to learn how to say something quick. And say it better.
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