Crisis Case Study: What Communicators can learn from the Strawberry Needle Crisis
By Michelle Wang and James Fitzpatrick
A few weeks have now passed since the Australian strawberry industry was brought to its knees. The needle scandal was large enough to activate an Australian Federal Police investigation along with significant attention from the Federal Government.
Images, videos and articles flooded traditional and social media with graphic warnings of needles submerged in strawberries and a whole nation rallying behind the industry.
When dozens of entities and companies are involved in a crisis, who leads the response and what needs to be done?
Unlike the bystander effect – where a community might shed responsibility onto businesses responsible to fix the issue – the Australian public and media rallied to ensure the strawberry industry didn’t collapse.
While the community support for the industry is inspiring and heart-warming, this case is a timely reminder for how your crisis messaging can significantly impact an entire industry and highlights the consequences of poor wording.
On Sunday the 9th of September, Haoni Hearne bit into a strawberry and accidentally swallowed half a needle. The punnet of strawberries they had purchased were from a Woolworths supermarket just outside of Brisbane.
Haoni contacted Woolworths, who subsequently took all strawberry punnets off their shelves before calling the police. Haoni and his friend spent the next few days in hospital due to abdominal pains.
By Wednesday 12th September, Police and Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr. Jeanette Young fronted the media and urged all customers who had purchased the brand ‘Berrylicious’ or ‘Berry Obsession’ to discard the strawberries amidst fears of needle contamination.
“If you are in doubt, just throw them out.” – Dr. Jeanette Young
After a few days, there were a handful of needle cases reported – escalating to dozens of contaminated batches by the following week. There were also reports of needles being found in other fruits such as apples. Two weeks after the first incident was recorded, contaminated strawberries were even found across the ditch in New Zealand.
At least seven berry brands have been found to be contaminated, including Delightful Strawberries, Oasis, Berry Obsession, Berrylicious, Mal’s Black Label, Love Berry, and Donnybrook Berries.
When the first contaminated punnet was reported in the ‘Berry Obsessions’ brand, Woolworths quickly issued a recall of strawberries and published a statement highlighting their commitment to food safety and their cooperation with authorities in the investigation. The Queensland Police Service also issued a statement about the case, urging the public to contact the police if other strawberries containing needles are found, and outlining the known facts of the case.
With shops rejecting batches of fruit and farmers speaking up about the loss in sales, workers and concerned family members took to social media, sharing videos of millions of strawberries dumped in a field after being rejected by consumers.
The Federal Government increased the maximum jail term for those found guilty of contaminating fruit to 15 years in response to the crisis, condemning the perpetrator’s actions as damaging Australians’ wellbeing, and stating that copycats will face the same punishment.
The investigation into where these needles came from and who put them there in the first place led to the discovery of a copycat who contaminated a punnet of strawberries purchased inside a Coles supermarket in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley.
Once contaminated strawberries had been found in all Australian states and New Zealand decided to stop importing Australian strawberries, the message and communications around the crisis flipped.
Thanks the help of some clever PR campaigns from the industry (like #smashastrawb), the media and general public gradually realised how devastating the call to “just throw them out” was proving for berry farmers.
To ease the pain, consumers were now being urged to continue buying strawberries and simply cut them up before consuming them.
This incident demonstrates how important your messaging and wording is in a crisis. It could be argued that the Chief Health Officer’s initial direction to “just throw them out” had a devastating effect on the entire industry.
We call it the ‘Halo’ effect: what you do and say impacts on many.
The industry’s quick rallying, leveraging of community support and alteration of the message to “cut ‘em up, don’t cut ‘em out” may have saved the industry but significant damage has undoubtedly been done.
When delivering your message a crisis, pay particular attention to your wording and always consider the impact your message may have on your industry's various stakeholders.