Communications experts provide insight on social media's role, and steps to address the public.
When a brand faces a crisis, the public response matters.
That’s one takeaway from the recall issued by vegan meal delivery service Daily Harvest. With the reports that led to the recall and the fallout all playing out on social media, the issue illustrates how safety and trust remain cornerstones for a brand.
With an eye toward lessons for other consumer companies, The Current explored how this unfolded, and contact crisis communications experts for insights about the response and next steps.
Founded in 2015, Daily Harvest reached unicorn status in 2021, growing with a combination of plant-based meals and a subscription model. It launched its French Lentil + Leek Crumbles on April 28, calling the product “a versatile plant-based crumble made entirely from real ingredients like lentils, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.”
By June 15, anecdotes started to appear that indicated the Crumbles were making people sick. These reports circulated on social media, including a viral video on TikTok which a woman detailed how liver issues persisted for a month. CBS News describes how stories spread:
Customers also took their complaints to social media. Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and Twitter users reported symptoms including nausea, vomiting and liver damage after eating the dish.
In one post on Facebook, a woman described having her gallbladder removed, adding, "the crumbles were delicious by the way." A Reddit user wrote that their spouse had experienced "extreme fatigue, dark urine, low-grade fever and whole-body itching with no rash.
The response from Daily Harvest began to become apparent toward the end of last week: NBC News describes it this way:
Daily Harvest posted a recall statement on its website Sunday. NBC News viewed an email it sent Friday asking a customer to throw away the lentils “out of an abundance of caution” and offering a $10 credit for every bag of the product that was purchased.
On June 19, Daily Harvest issued a recall notice, urging customers to dispose of the product.
“We took immediate steps to address what we heard from customers, reaching out to every person who received French Lentil + Leek Crumbles, instructing them to dispose of the product and not eat it,” the company wrote. “We simultaneously launched an investigation with internal and external experts throughout our supply chain and in accordance with regulatory procedures.”
On social media, the brand’s response was not as direct. While some of the posts have been removed, CNET describes the approach on its Instagram account:
The brand initially updated a series of Instagram posts with cryptic captions, which appear to have been since taken down. The posts alluded to the issues alongside glamour shots of the products in question, and captions directed followers to Daily Harvest's official statement but didn't include explicit information or warnings about the potential danger.
Commenters on the platform asked why information wasn’t more prominently displayed. On Twitter, the conversation turned from the illnesses people were facing to the lack of information being shared about it. On June 22, the company provided an update on how it is addressing the situation. Here it is in full:
As soon as we received reports suggesting a possible link between the French Lentil + Leek Crumbles and an adverse reaction, we immediately took action and launched a voluntary recall.
We have reached out multiple times directly to consumers who received the product, instructing them to dispose of it and not eat it. If you have French Lentil + Leek Crumbles, please dispose of them and do not eat them. The last thing we’d want is for anyone else to be impacted.
In parallel, we launched an investigation to identify the root cause of the health issues being reported. We’re working closely with the FDA and with multiple independent labs to investigate this. We are working with a group of experts to help us get to the bottom of this—that includes microbiologists, toxin and pathogen experts as well as allergists.
All pathogen and toxicology results have come back negative so far, but we’re continuing to do extensive testing and will keep you updated.
We are in touch directly with customers who reported adverse reactions and are collecting data to further the investigation, as well as offering refunds. If you have been impacted and are not already in touch with our team, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the updated link in our bio.
We are removing our old social posts with Crumbles. We don’t want there to be any confusion about the promotion of a product that has been recalled.
We are doing everything we can, as quickly as we can to identify the root cause. Nothing matters more than the health and safety of our customers and we deeply value the trust you put in us and our food every day. We will update you as soon as we know more. Please reach out if you have any questions.
The situation showed how a crisis can take on multiple levels. On one hand, there was the recall itself. Daily Harvest had to address the issue directly with the people who got sick. There was concern for their health. Meanwhile, the FDA and others were investigating what happened.
But another level of the crisis was taking place on social media, where stories were spreading on multiple channels.
“Social media has become a key component in communicating information quickly online, both for the consumer and brand,” said Brandi Sims, a 14-year PR and marketing consultant who is CEO of Brandinc PR. “We've seen too often when issues arise and are displayed on social media, things can quickly get out of hand and even more so when brand's lack timely response.”
Without immediate information from the primary source, other narratives emerged.
“By publicly reacting to the news of hospitalized customers a bit late, they allowed consumers, competitors, and analysts to draw their conclusions about what happened including how long Daily Harvest knew customers were experiencing illnesses,” said John Forberger, founder at Forberger Communications, which provides PR for commerce companies. “Plus, meal kit delivery naysayers quickly popped up to judge or shame the meal kit category and its players.”
Messaging to the public is a part of the response in and of itself. It’s an important part of the equation, given that this is a consumer-facing business which delivers around the country. It was on this level that another layer to the crisis emerged.
Chandler Redding, a publicist with Otter PR who specializes in brand strategy and crisis communications, thought the response from Daily Harvest was timely, "However, its delivery about what steps it was taking to correct the issue their product was causing was poor. This resulted in a secondary prominent variable besides the original issue. They posted an aesthetically pleasing photo along with a vague response in their caption instead of immediately highlighting the dangers of their product, which resulted in a negative reaction from their audiences. It sort of looks like they were trying to hide their mistake with a shady caption."
Most consumer brands make products that are a part of every day life. They are used in people’s homes and become part of their routines. Founders take that seriously. However, safety is especially important when it comes to products that are ingested or put on a person’s body. The onus is on the brands to take responsibility for what they ship. In a crisis, they must do it publicly.
“Nothing is more personal than food and healthcare, so CPG companies typically face tougher consumer backlash than others,” Forberger said. “Because they're claiming to offer "good, clean food," Daily Harvest, as well as other CPG brands, must go above and beyond in what they communicate to consumers, and how they address illnesses their products may have caused.”
Within a team, this requires striking a balance. Health and safety concerns mean that a company’s legal team should play a role before any statements are made, said Ronica Cleary, founder and CEO of public relations agency Cleary Strategies.
“This, however, needs to be paired with speed and efficiency – two essential elements of a successful social media response plan,” Cleary said. “Too many people involved in the decision-making process can slow response time and hurt the brand’s reputation permanently.”
For brands, having an action plan can help to ensure a response can be put in motion, Cleary said. This will help determine the key players who will distribute information, as well as determine the language and tone, Sims said.
Sims recommends a three-step approach to a response:
Demonstrating concern for the well-being of other humans matters, too. When communicating to the public, the most important thing is to be genuine, Redding said.
“When a brand is experiencing a crisis, it's time for the brand to prioritize empathy and being sincere in your response, rather than trying to stick to your branding guidelines," Redding said.
Even though it's taking place digitally, think about it just as a leader would in an in-person setting. Go into the community, and show what you're doing.
“Not only does the company’s response need to address what occurred, the response must also address changes that will be put in place to avoid the situation from occurring again,” Cleary said. Finally, the company should interact directly with those social media accounts that seem to be voicing authentic concerns in a personalized way.”
Social media offers a unique setting to talk with people, and not just distribute messages to them. The place where the crisis spread can be the same place where it is addressed. It could even be tapped for solutions to a tough problem that is not yet solved.
"The unique thing about this crisis is how we see a community rapidly form together to promote awareness about the dangers of Daily Harvest’s product,” Redding said. “If Daily Harvest had seen that their audience was already doing a lot of the leg work of promoting awareness about the issue, they could have seized that opportunity to strengthen their relationship with their consumers with better messaging. Instead, it looks like they were trying to hide their mistake and recall the product before the crisis blew up anymore."
To continue moving forward, Daily Harvest will have to undertake the important work of rebuilding trust. Forberger suggested posting a video that communicates next steps to keep them safe.
“While a livestreaming Q&A on a trusted platform like YouTube could face a hack or make executives nervous, it should be considered since interacting with their customer base has to be at the forefront of their communication strategy,” Forberger said.
Follow-through will be closely watched. If commitments are made, it’s important to do what they say they're going to do. In the end, a brand’s actions can speak louder than words if they are restorative.
“No matter how good one’s social media response may be, it will never compensate for inadequate execution of the promises made,” Cleary said.