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Food Policy 46 (2014) 84–93
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Food Policy
journal homepage:
Social media as a useful tool in food risk and benefit communication?
A strategic orientation approach
Pieter Rutsaert a,b,⇑, Zuzanna Pieniak a, Áine Regan c, Áine McConnon c, Margôt Kuttschreuter d,
Mònica Lores e, Natàlia Lozano e, Antonella Guzzon f, Dace Santare g, Wim Verbeke a
Ghent University, Department of Agricultural Economics, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines
University College Dublin, School of Public Health, Physiotherapy & Population Science, Dublin 4, Ireland
University of Twente, Department Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety, NL-7500 AE Enschede, The Netherlands
Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Dept. Communication Studies, Tarragona 43002, Spain
Hylobates Consulting Srl, Rome, Italy
Assessment and Registration Agency, Food & Veterinary Service, Riga, Latvia
a r t i c l e
i n f o
Article history:
Received 12 September 2012
Received in revised form 29 May 2013
Accepted 14 February 2014
Social media
a b s t r a c t
Although considerable progress has been made in understanding the determinants of risk perception and
in identifying the necessary components of effective food risk and benefit communication, this has not
been matched with the development of efficient and appropriate communication tools. Little work has
been done examining the implications of the explosion of new media and web technologies, which
may offer potential for improving food risk and benefit communication. First, this study examines the
views of stakeholders (n = 38) and experts (n = 33) in the food domain on the potential use of these
emerging media for food risk/benefit communication. Based on in-depth interviews in six European
countries (Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Spain and The Netherlands), strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of social media in food risk and benefit communication were identified. Second, a
Strategic Orientation Round (SOR) was used to evaluate the relative importance of the SWOT components
according to stakeholders (n = 10) and experts (n = 13). Results show that both stakeholders and experts
confirm a future role of social media in food risk and benefit communication. Strengths as speed, accessibility and interaction make social media an interesting tool in crisis communication or issue awareness
raising. Weaknesses as the lack of a filter, low trust, the risk of information overload and a communication preference for traditional media are acknowledged.
Ó 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The communication of risks and benefits in relation to food has
gained growing attention over the last decennia (Renn, 2008). The
purpose of this communication can vary greatly; building trust and
consensus, creating awareness, educating, influencing perceptions,
attitudes and beliefs, promoting action and changing behaviour
(McGloin et al., 2009). Good communication practice seeks to
bridge the divides between scientific experts, policy makers, health
practitioners, industry marketers, and consumers. It is important to
acknowledge that consumers can diverge in their responses to the
same information, with many factors shaping their assessments
⇑ Corresponding author. Address: Ghent University, Coupure links 653, B-9000
Gent, Belgium. Tel.: +32 9 2645920.
E-mail addresses: [email protected] (P. Rutsaert), [email protected]
(W. Verbeke).
0306-9192/Ó 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
and perceptions of a risk/benefit issue (Barnett et al., 2011).
Effective communication requires identification and thorough
understanding of the target audience’s needs and appropriate
management of the information provision so that it optimally addresses particular needs. Much research has been done to examine
the determinants of risk perception and to identify the necessary
components of effective food risk communication (e.g. Covello
and Sandman, 2001; Lofstedt, 2006; McCarthy and Brennan,
2009; Rollin et al., 2011). However, this research mainly focuses
on offline communication. More research is needed to study the
implications of the explosion of new media and web technologies.
The present paper will focus on the communicator’s view of the
potential opportunities and challenges of social media in the context of food risk and benefit communication.
The traditional communication model used in the food sector is
based on the knowledge-deficit model of communication: an information transfer and educative process involving the one-way flow
P. Rutsaert et al. / Food Policy 46 (2014) 84–93
of objective scientific information from an authoritative expert
source to the public (Hilgartner, 1990; Irwin and Wynne, 1996).
The goal of this communication strategy is to persuade the public
to accept expert risk judgements and to follow the advice and
guidelines without questioning. However, experts and lay people
perceive, judge, prioritise and deal with risks differently. Therefore,
food consumers often ignore or query the risk assessments and advice of scientists, the food industry and/or public bodies. Awareness of this ‘expert-lay discrepancy’ (Hansen et al., 2003) has led
to a refocus on risk communication as the interactive exchange
of information and opinions throughout the risk analysis process
(Fischhoff, 2011). While there is an acceptance for the importance
of public interaction and exchange of information, the traditional
way for communicators to spread their message remains to be
through mass media (Noar, 2006). The use of traditional media allows communicators to reach a large audience but neglects the
importance of interactivity and the active role of consumers in
the communication process.
In the last decennium the Internet has seen a new array of technical innovations that go collectively under the names of ‘web 2.0’.
Web 2.0 provided a platform for the evolution of social media
which is defined as ‘‘a group of Internet-based applications that
build on the ideological and technological foundations of web
2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user generated
content’’ (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010, p. 61). Examples include wiki’s, blogs, microblogs, podcasts, video-sharing and social networking websites. With the introduction of web 2.0, consumers began
to occupy a central position as a communicator and information
source (Meikle and Young, 2012). These technological developments have led to the emergence of a renewed form of ‘prosumption’; a market development in which consumers take over some of
the activities of producers (Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010). For example, on Wikipedia, users generate, update and edit articles (Giles,
2005), on YouTube users upload personal videos (Cheng et al.,
2008) and Twitter is used to share information and opinions with
followers (Jansen et al., 2009). Companies and individuals are
increasingly utilizing and involving the end-users to generate ideas
and to develop products and services for them.
Web 1.0 allowed consumers to read and search information,
whereas web 2.0 allows consumers to create information themselves. This evolution, together with the introduction of a consumer-dominated channel entails important consequences for
communication in general (Cova and Pace, 2006). International
food companies acknowledge the power of social media and gradually shift their marketing and communication budgets into new
media where the public gets opportunity for both creating and
sharing a content. As a consequence, the company passes control
of their brand and communication strategy partly over to the community. A well-known example of this phenomenon is the concept
of ‘viral marketing’ where customers are stimulated to forward an
online marketing message to members of their social network (Van
Der Lans et al., 2010). By involving the community, a message can
be spread effortlessly and rapidly without interference of the initial
sender. Communities with like-minded individuals can also create
their own identity and subculture and, interestingly, culinary practices also occupy a role in this. The paper by Cronin and McCarthy
(2011) for example illustrates how gamers share information with
their peers about the best foods to eat and the foods to avoid when
playing videogames.
Within food safety and health authorities, there has been a
more reserved attitude towards the use of social media thus far
(Thackeray et al., 2012), with a few notable exceptions in the area
of public health. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
in the United States have effectively implemented social media
platforms in their communication strategies in times of crises,
including the 2009 Salmonella typhimurium outbreak associated
with peanut butter and peanut-containing products (CDC, 2010).
Within this communication strategy, the CDC effectively empowered the public by employing numerous social media tools which
facilitated two-way interaction and the spreading of personalised
messages. Rutsaert et al. (2013) explored the potential of social
media to enforce some of the key principles recommended for
effective risk and benefit communication. Their work pointed out
that social media applications are particularly useful due to the
opportunity of direct communication and interaction with the
audience. Food risk communicators are also advised to be present
and pro-active on social media to increase visibility for the general
public and key opinion formers (e.g. popular bloggers and journalists), to establish themselves as credible interactive sources of
information and to enable timely communication with the public.
Besides this work, minimal research has been carried out on
how best to effectively use social media to communicate to the
public about food risks and benefits. The reserved attitude towards
social media witnessed amongst official bodies in the area of food
risk/benefit communication may result from a lack of evidencebased guidelines advising officials on how to most effectively
incorporate social media. Many authorities and official bodies
may be willing to have a presence on social media but may be unsure of how to effectively engage with it. Authorities’ perceptions
of social media as a communication tool may be coloured by incidents such as the McDonalds ‘Twitter Fail’. McDonalds developed a
Twitter campaign that attempted to get the public talking about
their favourite memories of the fast-food chain but this backfired
when Twitter users ‘hijacked’ the hashtag to tell horror stories of
food safety and production and poor service (Bradshaw, 2012).
Incidents such as this may leave public officials cautious about
engaging with social media at an official level. Their wariness is
only amplified by the absence of sufficient and evidence-based
guidelines to advise them on the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of official communication on social media. Having a presence on social media is
not enough – these authorities need to be equipped with the proper resources to use social media in the most effective manner. To
ensure such proper resources are available, evidence-based guidelines for communicating via social media are needed. Understanding how official bodies perceive social media as a communicative
strategy tool is needed to ensure that such guidelines are based
on the views and needs of those charged with the remit of
The current study aims to take the first step towards informing
evidence-based guidelines. First, it will examine how social media
can contribute to the communication of food risks and benefits
according to exports and stakeholders in the food chain. Second,
it will develop appropriate strategies for optimal social media
use in the future. Because of its exploratory nature, the first goal
will be answered using a qualitative approach, i.e. the SWOT method (Fine, 2009). This approach focuses on the identification of the
perceived strengths and weaknesses of social media for food risk
and benefit communication, as well as on the opportunities and
threats facing the use of social media. The second goal is executed
by using a more quantitative approach, through performing a Strategic Orientation Round (SOR) (Van Wezemael et al., 2013) to
investigate the possibilities for wider application and further dissemination of social media use.
Material and methods
The goal of this study is to gain a broad view of the ideas about
the usefulness of social media in communicating about food risks
and benefits. Authorities and scientific experts are traditionally
P. Rutsaert et al. / Food Policy 46 (2014) 84–93
seen as the responsible actors for informing the public about risks
and benefits (Frewer, 2004). Authorities and scientific experts in
the current study will further be referred to as ‘experts’. The main
focus of the risk communication literature has traditionally been
on the distinction between expert and lay points of view (Hansen
et al., 2003; Verbeke et al., 2007). Research by Shepherd et al.
(2006) and Houghton et al. (2008) recognises that many other
stakeholders of the food chain like the media, producers and retailers also fulfil an important role in the communication landscape
These stakeholders might have similar expertise and knowledge
as the experts, but different opinions, perspectives and communication objectives, e.g. due to other or vested interests. As this might
lead to alternate views on the value of social media, different types
of stakeholders of the European food chain have also included in
the study.
A total of 33 in-depth interviews were carried out with experts.
Interviews took place with European experts from (i) regulatory
authority stakeholders including food safety agencies, (ii) academic stakeholders, and (iii) government sector officials and/or
policy makers in six countries. In some cases interviews were carried out with two individuals from an agency, i.e. with a person
with a scientific-political role in the organisation, and with a person with a communications role in the organisation. These institutes or organisations were responsible for food safety
management and communication at regional, national or European
A total of 38 in-depth interviews were carried out with individuals from relevant stakeholders in the European food chain. Different types of stakeholders vary not only in their values and concerns
but also in their technical expertise and in their level of involvement with particular issues (Shepherd et al., 2006). Stakeholders
included are: (i) media representatives including journalists and
media producers, (ii) non-governmental and consumer organisations and (iii) industry representatives including food retailers
and producers, trade bodies and farmers’ unions. The rationale
for selecting these categories of stakeholder participants was to ensure a representation of stakeholders from across the food chain.
The evaluation of social media in the domain of food risk and
benefit communication was performed using the mixed sequential
design of Van Wezemael et al. (2013). Data collection and analysis
were executed in two stages. The first stage consisted of a listing of
SWOT components. The second stage consisted of scoring of a
SWOT matrix and performing a quantitative analysis through a
Strategic Orientation Round (SOR).
Qualitative research stage
The evaluation of social media as a tool in food risk and benefit
communication is based on a SWOT-analysis (i.e. an analysis of
strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), a strategic planning tool used to evaluate in a systematic way the external threats
and opportunities, and the internal weaknesses and strengths of a
project (Fine, 2009). A SWOT analysis is a stepwise method involving different stages of information and data collection, consisting
of specifying the project’s objectives and identifying the internal
and external factors that support or hinder achieving the specified
objective, i.e. improving food risk and benefit communication
through social media. The SWOT analysis does not only evaluate
the perception of social media itself, but also provides insights into
the further possibilities of applying social media in food risk and
benefit communication. This allows the identification of the main
points of interest for future strategy development (Sabbe et al.,
2009). SWOT analysis is typically done by so-called ‘‘prime witnesses’’, i.e. people who are well familiarised with the topic. In
the present study these were stakeholders and experts linked to
food risk and benefit communication from six European countries.
The diversity in backgrounds of participants ensured variability in
the obtained SWOT components.
During the interview, the participants were asked to list possible internal strengths and weaknesses, and external opportunities
and threats of the use of social media in the domain of food risk
and benefit communication. After the aggregation and translation
of the transcripts into English, those lists were filtered from repeated and overlapping answers. Misclassifications of internal
(strengths and weaknesses) and external (opportunities and
threats) characteristics were relocated by the researchers. The answers in the filtered list were categorized based on their content
and coherence, resulting in a final list of five strengths, five weaknesses, five opportunities and five threats. Subsequently, the SWOT
components were checked for consensus across countries. All components were mentioned in at least five of the six countries, except
for the component ‘‘low consumer interest in social media’’ which
was only mentioned in Belgium, Ireland and Spain.
Quantitative research stage
In the second (i.e. the quantitative) stage of the study a SOR
analysis was performed in order to translate the statements in
the SWOT analysis into more practical strategic objectives. The
SWOT-analysis is mainly a descriptive and synthesising instrument. Within the analysis, no hierarchy between the components
is established and therefore there is no solid base from which to
define a strategy. However, based on the qualitative SWOT method,
variations have been developed that make the step to a quantitative strategic approach (Dyson, 2004). One such variation is the
Strategic Orientation Round (SOR) method (Van Wezemael et al.,
2013). The SOR analysis relies on the outcome of the SWOT analysis. The SOR is a planning instrument that is used to define strategic objectives. While the SWOT analysis makes a situation analysis,
the SOR analysis is used to make the step from analysis to strategy.
The advantage of strategic orientation is that it explicitly links
diagnosis and assessment to strategic decisions and action planning, while the connection between analysis and planning is often
The identified SWOT components were combined in a matrix
where the rows were filled with the internal strengths and weaknesses, and the columns with the external opportunities and
threats. In this matrix, each of the internal components was confronted with each of the external components. Next, the involved
experts and stakeholders were asked individually to attribute
scores to every single cell of the matrix. These scores represented
their answers on four questions related to the quadrant encompassing the cell (see Table 1). Scores were attributed according to
two guidelines: firstly, a maximum of 12 points could be attributed
to each column; and secondly, each single cell score had to be
Table 1
Meaning of the quadrants of the SWOT …
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