Gain Competitive Advantage through Risk Management: NCBA’s Story

Kendal Frazier, Senior VP at National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) spoke at our Denver Association of Strategic Planning meeting on the subject of crisis and risk management. To appreciate NCBA’s risk management program, it’s helpful to understand this industry. They are HUGE, a $70 billion industry. Cattle are raised in every state, and occupy more land than any other industry in the US. There are over 800,000 in beef cattle; and 200,000 in dairy cattle. The two key goals of NCBA are to protect the safety of US cattle and thus protect the health of beef consumers and maintain consumer confidence in the product. There are strict rules to reduce the risk of disease entering the US cattle market from imports. There is a big push for risk communication: that is how NCBA will react to bad news such as Mad Cow disease!

While the more sensational story was around NCBA’s involvement in the Oprah Winfrey show in 1996, I more appreciated how NCBA implemented its risk management strategy when Mad Cow entered the US on Dec 23, 2003, and believe they reacted in a way that reflects cooperative intelligence principles.

On that same day, NCBA reached out to a pre-selected list of government contacts. They activated a dark website which had been developed just in case Mad Cow penetrated the US. At 5:30 pm that night, Ann Veneman, Secretary of the USDA, made the announcement. Then NCBA held a news conference with 140 media contacts. At 7:30 pm, they made announcements to state agencies, beef councils and affiliates, like McDonald’s who sells 3% of US beef. As of Dec 23, 20 – 30 people worked solely on this issue as prescribed by the emergency response process plan. They had a communication response plan all set to go and worked throughout the holiday season.

What lessons did they learn?

Practice, practice, practice–even down to the level of conducting media interviews.

Organize a team of spokespersons at the National and State level.

Organize your internal resources. Make sure that you have all functions around the table when these crises happen. You need everyone’s perspective: legal, marketing, administrative, purchasing, research, government affairs—all functions!

Drive consumers and media to your dark website. It was helpful to have already developed a dark website for Mad Cow disease.

Your enemies will attack: be prepared. NCBA had a list of enemy activist groups as part of their preparedness for this event.

Expect people to overreact and have your response ready (some schools said they would eliminate beef at cafeterias).

Communicate this difficult problem in easy terms to the consumer.

Make sure that industry amplifies what the government is saying.

Keep major partners in the communication loop.

The media is not the enemy, but is the battle ground. Choose multiple spokespersons for your message.

Evaluate how well your spokesmen come across in the media. Pull weak players and use the more effective spokespersons.

Give the ground team more support (the Washington State team where Mad Cow entered the US).

Being ready when a crisis hits is a huge competitive advantage! Scenario planning is a great exercise to flesh out which crises you should be prepared for. If you wait until the crisis hits, it’s too late, especially in today’s real-time world!

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