FoodRisC Press Release:Social media to improve food risk and benefit communication
Food safety professionals cannot afford to dismiss the use of social media as a communication tool, with approximately two billion people worldwide having access to the internet in 2012 and a large and increasing percentage of them using social media, reports the scientific paper "The use of social media in food risk and benefit communication". This paper, published in the leading international journal Trends in Food Science and Technology, was written by researchers from Ghent University and University College Dublin, and a communications company in the UK. It is part of the FoodRisC (Food Risk Communication – perceptions and communication of food risk/benefits across Europe) project, which is funded under the FP7 of the European Commission.
Social media users are playing a fundamental role as disseminators of food risk and benefit information. Monitoring of these online conversations can provide insight into consumers’ perceptions of food issues and allows detection and tracking of impending issues and on-going debates on topics such as genetic modification and animal cloning. Whether inadvertently misconstrued or intentionally altered as a result of vested interests, the broad social media landscape can oftentimes be a minefield of widely disseminated information which is incorrect or misleading.
Food risk communicators need to be present and pro-active on social media to increase visibility for the general public and key opinion formers (i.e. popular bloggers and journalists), to establish themselves as credible interactive sources of information and to enable timely communication with the public. A social media presence is imperative in order to rapidly address and correct developments containing inaccuracies and misinformation, thus ensuring a momentum does not build up. This is particularly true in food crisis situations where social media can lend itself to the escalation of a full-blown food crisis, and create potentially unwarranted panic and hysteria.
Active involvement with social media, in particular the constant monitoring and correcting of inaccurate information is likely to require considerable effort, resources and long-term expense (the time and cost effectiveness of different popular social media tools are graded low, medium or high in the paper).
Commenting on the review findings, the coordinator of the FoodRisC Research project Professor Patrick Wall said: “There is an increasing trend of private businesses investing in social media. Other risk and benefit communicators, such as food safety authorities, have been slow to use social media and there is a real need to harness this resource, so that it becomes a productive tool for communicating on food risks and benefits.”
The distribution of information is not the only task for food risk communicators in times of crisis. An organisation that takes responsibility or expresses sympathy with the consumer or those affected by the crisis, is regarded as more honourable and understanding. Social media applications are especially useful in this area due to the opportunity of direct communication and interaction with the audience.
The researchers conclude by emphasising that social media as a communication tool is not without its pitfalls and challenges and these require further attention and investigation to better enable, food marketers, food policy makers and public health authorities in their communication on food risks and benefits.
Notes to editor:
Rutsaert, P, Regan A, Pieniak Z, McConnon A, Moss A, Wall P, Verbeke W. (2012) The use of social media in food risk and benefit communication. Trends in Food Science and Technology in press. Available to view online:www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924224412002142
The FoodRisC project is funded under the Seventh Framework Programme (CORDIS FP7) of the European Commission; Grant agreement no.: 245124. The FoodRisC consortium is comprised of experts in key fields relevant to food risk and benefit communication from research institutes, consumer organisations, and SMEs in nine EU Member States, and is co-ordinated by University College Dublin.
The FoodRisC project has four major objectives:
1. Describe key configurations of food risk and benefit relationships and the implications for communicators.
2. Explore the potential of new social media (e.g., blogs and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter) and provide guidance on how risk communicators can best use these media for food risk and benefit communication.
3. Characterise the ways in which consumers attain, interpret, and utilise information to help target populations and tailor messages.
4. Propose a strategy and communication toolkit for the effective communication of coherent messages across EU Member States.
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