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Food Lion: Rules of engagement

Back in 1992, at a time when television news networks still dominated the national media, two ABC News PrimeTime producers went under cover. Using fake resumes to land jobs at Food Lion grocery stores, they clocked in for work with microphones clipped to their bras and hidden cameras tucked under their hairnets.

The resulting PrimeTime investigative segment portrayed the fast-growing Southeast grocery store chain as a place where employees routinely removed sell-by dates from expired cartons of eggs, soaked rotting fish in bleach to neutralize odors, and lathered outdated chicken with barbeque sauce so it could be repackaged as fresh.

When the segment aired, the business impacts were immediate. Food Lion’s market capitalization reportedly plunged by $1.3 billion the day after the segment aired, hitting an intraday low that saw the stock down by a third. Earnings the next year were slashed to less than $4 million, down from nearly $180 million the prior year.

In the wake of the PrimeTime story, the North Carolina-based chain shelved its aggressive expansion plans, closed about 10 percent of its nearly 1,000 stores, and ultimately ended up being fully acquired by global grocer Delhaize.

The PrimeTime story, though, was not about the press exposing dangerous food safety practices at a leading grocery chain. Food Lion had stellar sanitation ratings in states where it operated. Sanitation officers in Florida had even allowed ABC News producers to accompany them on surprise inspections to local stores over the course of several weeks, which turned up nothing close to the allegations in the PrimeTime segment. After the segment aired, North Carolina sent inspectors into every single Food Lion store in the state. No violations were documented.

Nor does the PrimeTime segment stand as a shining example of investigative journalism. Raw hidden camera footage -- video which did not air -- showed Food Lion food service managers consistently enforcing the company's stringent food safety rules, routinely ordering food beyond its expiration date be thrown out, for example.

“Goddamnit,” one of the producers exclaimed on tape after being asked by a manager to discard 20 expired deli items. After the broadcast, evidence surfaced that at one of the stores, a hot water heater had been tampered with, keeping store workers from cleaning meat-cutting equipment. The final segment did include seemingly damning footage of a worker talking about feeling pressured to cook outdated chicken. It did not include the next minute of tape, where the employee and manager agreed the chicken should be discarded.

Weaponizing the press

So if there was no tangible evidence of food-handling violations uncovered during the hidden camera reporting, what was the PrimeTime story really about? In a detailed study of the coverage and court documents, Accuracy in Media concluded, the Food Lion expose was rooted in a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers union to halt the expansion of a fast-growing grocery chain that was threatening union jobs.

A union publicist pitched the story to ABC News producers, enticing them with false claims while directing them largely toward disgruntled former employees and spurious evidence. Seduced by a juicy story, the national news network overlooked obvious clear and easily obtainable evidence -- like state health inspection records -- that would have exonerated the grocer. Instead, the network news organization became laser-focused on producing a sweeps-week bombshell, a story that would drive up ratings used to set advertising rates for the program.

Effectively, the labor union’s PR team had weaponized the press against Food Lion. The PrimeTime story memo was drawn up by the PR department of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and the ABC News producers never questioned their motives. The PrimeTime coverage left millions of consumers with the false impression about the grocery store chain, the kind of reputational damage that is financially material and strategically devastating.

Today, as the digital media accelerates and amplifies the impacts of breaking news, PrimeTime’s Food Lion expose stands as a cautionary tale. Breaking news can inflict lasting reputational and financial damage on companies. Those impacts can be even more devastating as the news media becomes increasingly polarized, the speed of digital coverage erodes editorial standards, and publishers struggle to adapt to a new online business model.

Rules of engagement

The Food Lion-PrimeTime case study is a cautionary tale about media relations, a critical external communications function typically managed by corporate public relations. While media relations manages an organization's communications with a finite group of stakeholders -- typically, a handful of reporters would actively cover a major national company -- the reach of the news they produce extends to 70% of Americans in a typical day.

The modern rules of engagement for the press date to the late 1920s with the advent of radio news. Because of limitations on the number of broadcast bands available, the Radio Act of 1927 required newscasts to provide “equal time” to coverage of political campaigns. The Fairness Doctrine adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949 advanced the concept of balanced coverage.

The ground rules for media relations remain loosely rooted in these age-old concepts of fairness and accuracy, although the rules of engagement have changed over time. Following the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon, for example, sourcing rules were refined as investigative reporting hit its stride. More recently, the ground rules are rapidly deteriorating due to the digitization of the press.

For PR practitioners, it's critical to understand how the media game is played. Here are some of the fundamental media relations rules of engagement used by the press for sourcing information:

  • On the record – Information is being provided to the press with the understanding that any or all of it can be published with appropriate attribution to the source of that information.

-- All press conferences are conducted on the record.

-- Assume that all communications are on the record with reporters unless other terms are mutually agreed to.

  • Embargoed -- This information is being released to journalists for planning purposes, and should not be disclosed until the embargo is lifted.

  • Exclusive – The information being conveyed is accurate and will not be provided to other news outlets until after it is published by the reporter.

-- Offering exclusive stories to reporters creates conflicts of interest and ethical considerations that must be managed on both sides.

  • On Background – Information is being conveyed that may be published unsourced; on background is sometimes used to help a reporter understand an issue. The Biden administration is unusually public about background briefings, posting transcripts online.

-- The source of the background information can only be described in general terms, as in a high-ranking official, a former employee, a person with knowledge of the situation.

-- The confidentiality of the background source must be maintained, even post-publication.

  • Deep background -- Information must be independently verified before publication.

-- The original source cannot be disclosed or described, even in conversations.

-- The confidentiality of a deep background source must be protected and not disclosed post-publication.

-- The source has an expectation the information will be reported.

  • Off the record – Information must be independently verified before publication.

-- The original source cannot be disclosed or described, even in conversations.

-- The confidentiality of an off-the-record source must be protected and not disclosed post-publication.

-- The source may have an expectation the information may not ultimately be published.

Remember our Functional - Tactical - Strategic framework? These sourcing rules would be examples of day-to-day media relations. Basic blocking and tackling. Can media relations be more tactical? Are there ways to ensure information is communicated through the media more efficiently and effectively? Rhetorical questions. Here are some tactical media relations practices, along with notes on how they play out in practice:

  • Pre-test messages – Press releases can be pre-tested in a variety of ways.

-- Few companies routinely pre-test press releases or expected news coverage.

  • Due diligence – Reporter inquiries should be two-way – find out both what the reporter wants to know, and what they know already.

-- Inquire about the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How throughout the process; recreate the reporter’s notebook.

-- Watch for clues to anonymous sourcing; surface conflicts of interest.

- Ask direct questions -- ”What is this story ultimately about?” and “If you had to write your lead right now, what would it be?”

  • Customer-centric response – Responses should be directed toward customers, and be responsive to their concerns.

-- Declining comment is sometimes necessary to avoid litigation, but rarely advances the company’s objectives.

  • Campaign effectiveness – Gauge success of news outputs on brand reputation and sales.

-- Comparisons between pre-test and post-test results can be an indicator of success.

As a tactical matter, one widespread frustration among media relations professionals is an inability to show what economists would term "avoided costs." Sometimes, reporters are fed bad information, misinterpret facts, or simply get things wrong. It happens. From the media relations perspective, how do you measure the value of what would have been a highly damaging news story that never ran, or a story that was corrected during the news cycle?

Setting the record straight?

The 27-minute PrimeTime segment was riveting. Viewers watching the highly rated news magazine saw former Food Lion workers describing soaking rotting fish in bleach, altering sell-by dates on dairy products and repacking outdated meat.

Accuracy in Media would later document 16 specific claims of food-safety violations in the PrimeTime segment, none of which could be verified by the footage gathered by the undercover producers. In a handful of cases, apparent food-safety violations allegedly were staged by the undercover producers. In every instance, claims being voiced by anchor Diane Sawyer during the national broadcast were not substantiated by the video being aired.

While reporters typically will contact media relations counterparts to discuss stories as they are being reported, it is not unusual for investigative reporting to be conducted surreptitiously. From a media relations standpoint, not surprisingly, the first Food Lion heard of the PrimeTime investigation was when Sawyer walked confidently into one of its stores located about 25 miles north of the company's Salisbury, N.C. headquarters, flanked by a former meat department worker, a network producer and a camera crew.

It did not take long for Food Lion to piece together what was going on. A former employee had helped ABC News game the hiring process, and provided a reference for one of the undercover producers. A quick credit check confirmed that Food Lion's former undercover worker was on the ABC news payroll. More than three months before the segment would air, Food Lion was on notice that a hard-hitting story was in the works.

But instead of relying on media relations to sort through the coverage and represent the company in editorial discussions with PrimeTime, Food Lion took a different -- but again, not unusual -- tack. The company hired a New York-based defamation lawyer, and in a contentious meeting with ABC counterparts demanded PrimeTime turn over all of the videotape shot in its stores. The news outlet, confronted by a team of corporate lawyers, raised its First Amendment shields and moved into final production.

With sweeps week looming, Food Lion had one last chance to make its case. In the early 1990s, fair reporting standards were still practiced, and ABC News all but owed Food Lion a chance to respond as part of the story. ABC News asked for an interview with Food Lion CEO Tom Smith. Food Lion agreed, on the condition that the interview either be conducted live or air unedited. ABC News declined. In the end, the segment aired with a Food Lion statement denying the claims.

Three years later, Food Lion went on the offensive, taking ABC News to court on fraud, breach of duty and trespass claims pegged to the undercover investigation. While ABC News claimed victory because the network was not being sued for libel, a North Carolina jury awarded Food Lion $5.5 million in punitive damages tied to the fraud, along with $1,400 in compensatory damages to cover costs of hiring the ABC producers and $2 in damages for breach of loyalty and trespass.

On appeals, only the $2 fine survived.

Food Lion produced a videotaped response to the PrimeTime segment

which can be found here:

What stood out to you about PrimeTime's journalistic practices

and Food Lion's PR response in this case?

Post your fact-based observations as a comment below.

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