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Ice cream crisis: What’s next for Blue Bell

Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla half gallons are filled at the ice cream maker's headquarters in this file photo.
Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla half gallons are filled at the ice cream maker's headquarters in this file photo. Special to the Star-Telegram

A nationwide Blue Bell ice cream recall has grown into a full-blown crisis, and the Texas-based company must act fast to preserve its reputation and hang on to loyal customers, crisis management experts said.

On Monday, Blue Bell pulled all its products off store shelves everywhere — including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks distributed in 23 states and abroad.

The sweeping move followed several smaller Blue Bell recalls over the last month that the company initiated after its products were linked to three deaths at a Kansas hospital. Five other illnesses in Kansas and Texas were linked to Blue Bell products as well.

Although Blue Bell Chief Executive Officer and President Paul Kruse issued a sympathetic videotaped message on the company’s website this week, marketing and crisis management experts said the company could be doing far more.

For starters, the company’s top executives could appear at a news conference to speak directly to the public and answer questions, said Charles Blankston, a marketing and logistics professor at the University of North Texas in Denton.

“There’s got to be a senior person from the company who is willing to come out and explain exactly what is going on, so people can begin to re-establish the trust,” Blankston said. “The company should say, ‘This is what happened. We appeal to all our customers to bear with us. We are managing it.’ The person should also be humble, not arrogant.”

Blue Bell arguably occupies a place on the Mount Rushmore of Texas pleasure food, along with Shiner beer, Whataburger and Dr Pepper. But that lofty position could crumble, if the company doesn’t start making a higher-profile attempt to communicate with its loyal customers, another crisis management expert said.

“Blue Bell’s problems started around March 13 with the initial preliminary warnings and a voluntary recall. Since then, they’ve been engaged in death by 1,000 cuts in terms of public relations,” said Jonathan Bernstein, a Los Angeles-based crisis management consultant and author of a book titled Keeping the Wolves at Bay.

Bernstein said that because Blue Bell was weeks late responding to concerns about the bacteria in its food, “the result is a never-ending series of news events, as they incrementally expand the recall. And every time, it associates the name Blue Bell with listeria.”

Companies often act on the advice of lawyers not to admit too much, lest the business be exposed to unnecessary liability, Bernstein said. But company leaders should be ready to dispense with that advice and instead “keep falling on their sword.”

“Don’t restart the operation until you can make absolutely certain the problem cannot recur,” Bernstein said. “The advantage of having a near-cultlike following, particularly in Texas, is they have 100-plus years of accrued goodwill. I have no doubt that cushion will get them through this, as long as they communicate going forward.”

▪ Q&A: What is Listeria?

Texas Health, Tylenol faced similar challenges

Many companies have struggled to get their arms around a health crisis.

Most recently, Texas Health Resources was heavily criticized for its handling of Ebola last year at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. Nurses Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson were sickened after treating Liberian visitor Eric Duncan, 42, who later died of the highly contagious virus.

Pham and Vinson survived, but Texas Health Resources Chief Executive Officer Barclay Berdan mostly stayed out of the limelight during the crisis. As the situation evolved over a period of several weeks, the hospital system took plenty of heat for its perceived lack of ability to handle a potentially deadly disease outbreak.

Other companies have been heralded for a swifter response.

In 1982, the makers of Tylenol faced a crisis after the deaths of seven people were linked to cyanide contamination in its products. Parent company Johnson & Johnson responded swiftly by pulling every Tylenol product off the shelves and only resumed sales after dramatically improving tamper-resistant packaging and rolling out a public awareness campaign.

At least, that’s how the story is told in public opinion and crisis management courses. But Bernstein said the company’s response was debatable, and the Tylenol case wasn’t the public relations success for which it often gets credit. Instead, he said, there is evidence the pain medicine makers could have acted days earlier.

Blue Bell isn’t the only company to cope with Listeria contamination.

▪  Timeline: The current listeriosis outbreak started in 2011

Earlier this month, Sabra Dipping Co. announced a recall of 30,000 cases of its Classic Hummus. No illnesses have been linked to that recall.

In January, a California company recalled Granny Smith and Gala apples after Listeria samples found in its plant matched bacteria that sickened 32 people across the country, including at least three deaths. The illnesses and deaths were linked to consumption of caramel apples.

Also, Amy’s Kitchen, a frozen food line known for its organic and gluten-free dishes, recalled more than 73,000 cases of frozen food in March after Listeria was detected, although no illnesses were reported.

 

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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