Politicians, PR pros weigh in on BPI lawsuit

Editor’s note: This is part two of a four-part series related to the defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. against ABC News.

As legal teams for both sides prepare for the oncoming duel over alleged defamation and product disparagement, the Beef Products Inc. public relations team is preparing for the public opinion battle.

BPI launched a website (beefisbeef.com) to counteract the negative media coverage of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), and to provide a platform of support for its product and production methods. The website offers readers a copy of the 257-page lawsuit, footage of BPI press conferences, and many links to blogs, news articles and public relations pieces that support BPI’s position.

One of the public relations pieces linked on the site is by Chuck Jolley of Jolley and Associates, a public relations firm based in the Kansas City area. “Manipulated Public Opinion Trumps Real Science – Again” is a Jan. 9 article from the Food Safety News website. This article was a response to media attention on LFTB resulting from chef Jamie Oliver’s television program that was critical of the product.

“They [BPI] made contact with me two months ago and asked if they could use the article on the website they were creating,” Jolley says.

Jolley has not done public relations work for BPI. He did say however, that he is the president of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, and that Eldon Roth, founder and CEO of BPI, was inducted into the hall of fame in 2011.

“I think ABC – Jim Avila, particularly – was way out of line in the way they presented the story,” Jolley says. “They refused to look at the other side. They used loaded language that was not appropriate; it was news sensationalism at its worst.”

The loaded language Jolley refers to involved the frequent use of the term “pink slime” instead of LFTB in the ABC report. BPI feels the use of the term promotes a negative image of the product.

The “beef is beef” website also highlights the backing BPI has from multiple elected officials. Most of the elected officials offering support are from a state that plays host to a BPI production facility. Once such article is “Governors Help BPI Wash Ammoniated Beef of ‘Pink Slime’ Image,” also from foodsafeynews.com. The supportive governors include Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Brownback, who was Kansas’ secretary of agriculture from 1986 to 1993, spoke out in defense of BPI this spring following the ABC News report. He posted on his Facebook page “Governor Brownback, Secretary of Agriculture Tour BPI Plant” March 29. This was the same day the Garden City (Kan.) Telegram published the article titled “Brownback speaks out in defense of BPI.” The article outlines Brownback’s stance.

The Garden City area is home to one of BPI’s production facilities where workers were laid off as a result of the LFTB sales slump.

“Kansas consumers demand and deserve access to safe, nutritious food,” says Sherriene Jones-Sontag, press secretary for Brownback, in a statement to Gateway Journalism Review.

“Lean finely textured beef is a scientifically proven safe, nutritious beef product that helped meet consumer’s demands,” Jones-Sontag adds. “The Brownback administration will continue doing all it can to support Kansas farmers and ranchers and encourage grocery retailers, restaurants, consumers and all involved in food service to seek the facts about lean finely textured beef.

“In Kansas, the beef industry generates more than $6.5 billion in cash receipts a year.”

Several online articles, including one in the Washington Post, have speculated on the success of BPI’s claim against ABC News, but add winning the court battle is just part of the larger war.

“It [the lawsuit] is justified in two different ways,” Jolley says. “As a journalist, I think journalism today – especially mass media – has gotten too far away from what I was taught in school. I was taught to show two sides on a story. It has become combat journalism.

“Looking at it in the broader sense, will they win? Is it worthwhile as far as journalism is concerned? I don’t think they will. They should, but it will make journalism stand up and take notice – and for us to look at the direction of journalism over the last 15 years or so.”

Does the Maker of ‘Pink Slime’ Have a Case Against ABC News?” is the headline for a Sept. 13 article on adage.com. This article reviewed the case and presented views from public relations experts, one of which had this to say: “ ‘Still, PR considerations are typically a secondary concern for companies in these legal matters,’ said Chris Gidez, senior VP and global practice lead for Hill & Knowlton Strategies. ‘Smart companies don’t make decisions about filing lawsuits based primarily on the PR implications, good or bad,’ he said. ‘They make those decisions based on the facts, and how important it is to their business.’ ”

The lawsuit was filed under the umbrella of South Dakota’s agriculture disparagement law. South Dakota is one of 13 states that have such laws on the books.

“I think those laws are ridiculous,” Jolley says. “It is good for politicians to go to constituents and say, ‘See what I did for you.’ The Paul Engler [Texas Cattlemen Association] lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey was agriculture disparagement laws’ first big test – and he lost.

“From a public relations standpoint it was a crazy move. It gave her a huge platform for what should have been a passing comment. Oprah should have sent him a gift basket for all the attention.”

Jolley has worked in public relations since the late 1970s. He works exclusively in the meat industry, with clients throughout the United States and Europe. In addition to the Food Safety News article, he has written extensively for cattlenetwork.com.

BPI spokesperson Rick Jochum did not respond to multiple requests for comments.

Part three of the series will look at the issues from the viewpoint of media and First Amendment scholars. Part four will provide an in-depth look at agriculture disparagement laws.

***Update: After this story was published, a BPI spokesman made contact with Gateway Journalism Review. The spokesman said, “On advice from counsel we are not speaking publicly about the complaint filed in Union County Circuit Court at this time.”

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