Inside Alberta Pork’s H1N1 war room

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be at the centre of a media firestorm unless you’ve actually experienced it. For the staff at Alberta Pork and the communications professionals working with them, the spring of 2009 provided more first-hand experience than they could have ever wished for.

Lee Funke of Alberta-based Torque Communications shared his experiences of working with Alberta’s pork industry during the stressful early days of H1N1 and the news that a herd of pigs in that province had contracted the disease with delegates at the recent Canadian Farm Writers Federation conference held in Edmonton.

It was April 28, 2009 when news broke that the H1N1 virus – dubbed “swine flu” by the media – had been discovered in a herd of pigs in rural Alberta. Despite assurances from countless experts that one cannot contract H1N1, borders to Canadian pork exports slammed shut and the fallout continues to dominate the industry today.

Five months after that initial outbreak, hog farmers are plagued with lost revenues and diminished markets and farm families are struggling to deal with the stress and strain of the ongoing uncertainty facing their businesses.

From a disease perspective, today’s focus is on inoculation, reducing the risk of transmission between humans and safeguarding public health. But during the seven weeks of the H1N1 crisis in Alberta’s pork industry, the focus was on consumer confidence, international trade and food safety.

“We all have a responsibility to inform people about food production and food safety,” says Funke. “But this is even more critical during a crisis situation.”

Here are the key learnings he shared with the group. A second post will explain in more detail the types of challenges that faced Alberta Pork’s crisis team and what actions they took to respond.

  • People need to feel you are credible, competent, in control and passionate
  • Avoid conflicts or public disagreements between credible sources
  • Ensure that provincial and federal organizations are well informed and coordinate
  • Disclose information as soon as possible and make complex technical info relatable
  • Collaborate with other credible sources so that together you can share – not less – info
  • Maintain the trust of the media and the public at all times

Print Friendly, PDF & Email