Naming an issue can be the most important aspect of issue management. And the recent Pink Slime saga in the United States highlights that a name alone can effectively decide a high profile controversy.
A few years ago American meat producers discovered that instead of turning beef scraps into pet food, the meat and fat could be separated in a heated centrifuge, treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill off bacteria, then sold as cheap filler to bulk up mince in “100% ground beef” hamburger patties.
It had been on sale since 2001 under the label “lean, finely textured beef.” That was until TV chef Jamie Oliver, then ABC reporter Diane Sawyer, exposed it as what a government scientist had nicknamed Pink Slime – highlighting that it was in well over half of all hamburger mince and was sold to the National School Lunch Program. Within weeks the major fast food companies and largest supermarket chains withdrew the product. The leading manufacturer promptly shut down three of its four plants at the cost of 650 jobs, and another producer soon sued for bankruptcy protection.
Beef producers and some politicians claimed the campaign was an attempt to “smear” the meat industry (an unfortunate choice of phrase). Some experts even tried to argue to an obesity-obsessed nation that Pink Slime is actually lower in fat than regular beef mince. But the issue was already well and truly a lost cause. As AP reported: “The controversy shows how a simple nickname can forever change an entire industry.”
The importance of naming and framing an issue is nothing new. One of the most familiar examples is how pro-abortion and anti-abortion became pro-choice and pro-life. Less well known is how the Bush White House sponsored the remarkably effective effort to reposition worrying global warming as the more natural-sounding climate change. Then there was the extraordinarily successful initiative by a PR expert working for the Las Vegas Casino owners who transformed gambling into gaming, a new term which has now been unwittingly adopted around the world.
Not every naming effort is so effective, such as the failed attempt to re-label coal seam gas fracking as seam stimulation, or calling a toxic waste incinerator a thermal oxidation unit, or the Australian Government’s current effort to reposition its carbon tax compensation payment as a Household Assistance Package. There is even news that the British and American makers of unmanned surveillance aircraft have launched campaigns to find a new, less threatening, name for drones. Good luck on that one!!
When it comes to activist critics, whoever first used the term Frankenfoods to stigmatize genetically modified products brilliantly captured the public imagination. And similar critics are now describing a new GMO corn that is immune to the herbicide 2,4-D with the catchy nickname Agent Orange Corn. The lesson for issue managers is clear. Selecting the right name is critical, and leaving it to a media-savvy opposition is just inviting the next Pink Slime disaster.