Blue Bell Creameries has been slowly recovering from a months-long PR crisis sparked by a fatal listeria outbreak in March 2015 linked to several of its products.
Last Thursday, the company issued a proactive update on the “enhanced procedures at [its] production facilities,” stating that after rigorous testing, it found no confirmed listeria contamination at its plants.

Unfortunately, due to confusing wording in the statement, the news was misinterpreted by several major media outlets, including ReutersCNN and Fox News, who initially reported that listeria had been found. Ironically, the press release that was meant to put customers and the media at ease reignited panic around the safety of the company’s products.

In the Red Banyan blog, we often stress the importance of a well-executed response in a time of crisis. With the quick and massive recall of its products last year, Blue Bell demonstrated its commitment to the safety and well-being of its customers. However, the company’s latest communications meltdown could have been easily avoided had the company followed some basic communications best practices.

The problem with Blue Bell’s initial announcement, entitled “An update on our enhanced procedures at our production facilities,” is that it doesn’t clearly state the news that the company’s products are safe and no listeria contamination had been found. Instead, the key sentence announcing that “no products produced have tested positive for Listeria” is buried near the end of the five-paragraph-long release.

The basic rules of crafting a public statement are simple and should be well-known to communications professionals (and for good reason):

  1. Make sure your headline is clear and to the point
  2. Start your press release with the most important and pertinent news
  3. Adapt your content to your audience

To Blue Bell’s credit, the company did move quickly to clear up confusion by issuing a statement of clarification, saying:

“To keep our customers informed, we gave an update Thursday, January 7, 2016, on the progress we have made with our enhanced procedures in our production facilities. Unfortunately, in some media reports this information has been misstated. In our facilities, we have identified suspected areas where bacteria may be present but in no case have we confirmed Listeria monocytogenes.”

While the update certainly helped and many news outlets issued corrections to their articles, the full damage was certainly not undone. It’s highly likely that some members of the general public saw only the original news stories reporting additional listeria, or also misunderstood the company’s first statement, and still think there was a second outbreak.

We hope that Blue Bell’s communications department learns from this communications misstep, and in the future will stick to these time-honored guidelines for crafting press releases to help the century old-company resolidify public trust in its products.