Meat Scare Feeds Media Frenzy: Find out How One Company Dealt with a Threat of Product Tampering and How the Lessons Can Be Applied to Any Situation. (Business Continuity)

Article excerpt

ON NOVEMBER 10, 2001, THE FBI announced the profile of the person they think may be responsible for the anthrax-laced letters sent last fall to media notables and members of the U.S. congress. The description suggests that the letters are the work of a homegrown terrorist. Or in the words of The Globe and Mail, canada's national newspaper, a "geek with a grudge" is believed to be responsible for the terror campaign.

According to the FBI profile, the person who wrote the anthrax letters is an adult male who is nonconfrontational, works in a laboratory or is comfortable around hazardous materials, is rational and calculated, rather than random in his actions, holds grudges for a long time, and is quietly vengeful.

While the nature of the threat-anthrax-may have been a new twist, receiving serious threats, or worse, through the mail is not new to corporate America, as the author has seen firsthand. During a 20-year career of directing loss prevention and security programs for retail supermarket chains, the author has investigated four different instances of "terrorism by mail." In only one of these four cases did the perpetrator actually carry out the threat (in that case by shooting into the homes of company executives). But even the threats not carried out posed serious problems, disrupting operations and hurting the company's image and bottom line.

Three of these terrorist campaigns were perpetrated by people claiming to be employees angry with the company and intent on harming customers and coworkers. The fourth was an attempt to extort money from the company. In this article, the author will detail one of these cases and how it was handled, as well as provide general contingency planning and crisis management tips that can help any company learn to manage an incident.

The chain of events. An anonymous letter was sent to the corporate office of a large upscale supermarket chain based in Tampa, Florida. The writer threatened to put razor blades in meat products at a particular bay-area store unless an unnamed "we" was treated better. The gist of the letter was that someone was angry with the company for some perceived wrongdoing.

The loss prevention manager at that time (the author) called the police and reported the letter. The police department opted to bring in the FBI immediately. However, before the police could even drive to the chain's offices, the supermarket's headquarters received a call from a local television station, asking how the company was going to respond to the threat of product tampering. The terrorist had sent copies of the same letter to every television station in Tampa.

Clearly, part of the letter-writer's goal was to put pressure on the company by publicizing the threat and spreading fear among the general public-the store's customers. The company was not prepared for this tactic. In a similar incident in the past, no such public notification had been given, and within two days the perpetrator had been identified and arrested. The notification of the media in this case created a new dynamic.

The chain's director of communications attempted to regain control of the rapidly deteriorating situation, but to no avail. He and the author begged the media not to run the story until the FBI could investigate the allegations and possibly identify the letter writer. They were told that the public has a right to know.

Corporate representatives had not yet met with the police or the FBI to begin the investigation when headquarters as well as individual stores were besieged with mobile vans and reporters seeking a scoop on the contamination story. News stations even broke into local programming to report the letters, showing the police in newsroom offices looking at them. The story then ran on every station in the morning, at noon, and at night for several days, which caused a widespread panic in every supermarket chain in the bay area. …