MIAMI—Food companies must improve their understanding of the activists that are threatening their business, delegates at the Global PR Summit heard today in Miami.

Rising food activism has resulted in serious issues for several companies, perhaps best illustrated by the ‘pink slime’ scenario that has affected meat producers.

GolinHarris vice chairman Ellen Ryan Mardiks, who led the session, used research to demonstrate four new types of activists: ‘real’ food moms, professional activists, empowered kids and experienced survivors. 

“Nobody feels they have this nailed,” said Ryan Mardiks, adding that “these activists are real people, leveraging a powerful and varied communications playbook. The most powerful tool they are leveraging is emotion and a megaphone like never before.

Cargill corporate VP of corporate affairs Mike Fernandez pointed out that communicators had to try and understand things from the perspective of activists and NGOS, and then try and find some shared understanding. That was the approach his company took, he said, when it was facing criticism of its soybean farming in the Amazon.

“We ultimately sat down with Greenpeace and WWF and came up with a solution that was working for us and working for the farmers and working for NGOs,” said Fernandez. “We set up a satellite routine where we were literally monitoring the farms.”

Danish Crown head of communications Anne Villemoes explained that she favoured a more direct approach, pointing out that activism is “very seldom knowledge, it’s always emotions.”

“We have to use the same emotional imagery that the activists do,” added GolinHarris global corporate president Scott Farrell. “The one thing that new activists do is they have found a way to personalise the story. We have to separate the messenger from the message and look to the folks in the middle.”