How dumplings became garbage?
The Korea Food and Drug Administration’s
handling of a food scare
January 14, 2005
Teaching Note: Garbage Dumpling 2
Submitted to the Arthur W. Page Society
Case Study Competition in
Teaching Note: Garbage Dumpling 3
How dumplings became garbage?
The Korea Food and Drug Administration’s handling of a food scare
In June 2004, the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) had difficulty handling
a spoiled food case related to dumplings. There was a tremendous public outcry agitated by the
sensational media reports labeled “garbage dumpling.” The KFDA’s passive involvement in the
investigation in the absence of communication with the police contributed to the circulation of
inaccurate information, which caused public confusion. Many of the alleged companies were
later found to be innocent but not before severe damage to the dumplings industry. As the crisis
unfolded, it appeared that the KFDA more often made excuses rather than take responsibility for
its actions. Unable to manage the issue effectively, the KFDA watched its public trust disappear.
This case was written to help students:
(1) Understand the media in regard to public relations practices.
(2) Understand barriers to effective public relations in the public sector during a crisis.
(3) Understand how weak organizational factors negatively impact communications.
(4) Recognize the value of trust in the public relations practices.
III. Teaching Considerations
This case is special because it provides students with a perspective of public relations in
a broad context of issue amplification. As a whole, the discussion for the case is comprised of
two parts: evaluation of the KFDA’s issue management and alternatives for building public trust.
The discussion about the KFDA’s handling of the issue focuses on three points.
Teaching Note: Garbage Dumpling 4
(1) One important aspect of the case lies in understanding how media practices and
public relations activities interact with each other. It is important that public relations
practitioners understand how the media produce news stories. What are journalistic values and
what expectations do news reporters have of public relations practitioners? After addressing
media practices, the lecturer can direct the discussion toward the importance of public relations
professionals understanding media practices and how following these practices will aid their
working relationships with media professionals.
(2) Another important discussion point is developing an understanding of the public
relations function in the public sector. The activities of communicators in public sectors are often
limited by regulations and strict communication policies. Therefore, the discussion should focus
on what types of barriers hamper effective communication in the public sectors and how
communicators effectively work their way around those barriers.
(3) Finally, a significant portion of discussion should be allotted for organizational
factors that contribute to communication excellence. The key point in this discussion lies in
understanding how public relations should be interwoven with other management functions and
how the status of public relations would affect the performance.
After time is spent evaluating KFDA’s crisis management, the class can discuss the
follow-up actions designed to rebuild trust with both the public and the media. Under the
situation given, students would be able to present several alternatives and discuss the advantages
and disadvantages of each. Then, students could be asked to propose a communication program,
which include communication goals, objectives, and strategies targeting each public. Here, the
key point is deciding appropriate and realistic communication strategies considering the
organizational constraints. Finally, the post-script will be distributed and students can affirm how
the crisis and accident helped KFDA realize the value of public relations.
It is desirable that students have a basic understanding of crisis communication
strategies, media relations, issue management and excellence study of public relations through
previous classes. Otherwise, the instructor can provide students these theoretical concepts
through the class discussion. Also, it would be useful to introduce students to the Page
Principles by Arthur W. Page. Although developed under corporate communication context, the
principles are applicable and provide manageable guidelines for ethical and effective public
relations in the public sector, too, and can be a framework to evaluate the case. The principles
include; tell the truth, prove it with action, listen to the customer, manage for tomorrow, conduct
public relations as if the whole company depends on it, and remain calm, patient and good-
Teaching Note: Garbage Dumpling 5
humored (Refer to www.awpagesociety.com for details).
IV. Discussing Problem Questions
1. Should KFDA have released the list of the companies before its investigation was
completed? How should such decisions about information disclosure be made? How can one
balance between the public’s right to know and potential damage of the companies?
Note: Information disclosure is a critical question especially when there is not enough
information. In this case, public pressure was strong and the circulation of potentially harmful
dumplings was a concern. On the other hand, the evidence was not enough to accuse the
dumpling manufacturers and the possibility of litigation was another concern. In such a critical
situation, the decision would be difficult. However, as the Page Principles indicates that the
principle of information disclosure is in “telling the truth,” especially “releasing the confirmed
truths” in the crisis situation. KFDA’s mistake was that it neither announced nor explained that
the investigation was in process and therefore the list could not be confirmed. The June 10 press
release implied that the investigation had been completed and the evidence was firm. There may
have been a different scenario if the KFDA had not disclosed the list until after the investigation
had been completed. As the Page Principles indicated, if the organization “remained calm and
patient” under the public pressure, the public relations could have been much more consistent.
2. How had the issue been amplified? What were the factors which contributed to the
amplification process? What is the significance of public relations in the issue amplification
process? What kind of precautions should be taken to deal with such media environment?
Note: The purpose of this discussion lies in understanding media practices. Although it
was the police who made the mistake of using the word “garbage,” because the media were
extremely dependent on the government as an information source, the word and stories filled
with erroneous information were used without question by the media. The word “garbage”
became ingrained in people’s minds and stigmatized the entire dumpling industry. The lesson
here is that the communicators in public sectors should be careful in choosing words and avoid
sensational words. Considering the fact that people were so sensitive to the news stories about
food safety, the communicators should have been more cautious.
It should be noted that while the media are often blamed for amplifying issues, an
Teaching Note: Garbage Dumpling 6
organization involved in the issue also contribute to the amplification process if it fails to
provide timely and accurate information. If KFDA actively communicated with the public about
critical issues, such as the harmfulness of alleged dumplings or the use of radish remnants, the
public might have gained a more accurate understanding of the issue, thus containing issue
3. Think about the barriers of effective communication in the public sector, especially when it
involves with more than one organization.
Note: In this case, the absence of a communication system between the police and the
KFDA can be seen as the root cause of the crisis. If the police had shared information about the
investigation with KFDA or if KFDA had ongoing communication with the police, the situation
would likely have been different. As such, in the public sector, the communication effectiveness
with other governmental agencies often affects the performance of the agency. Therefore, the
organization should make an effort to develop effective communication and surveillance systems
with relevant organizations. Also, it should be noted that when two or more organizations are
involved, difference in communication policies and cultures may hinder effective public
4. How would you evaluate KFDA’s media relations? How was the relationship between
reporters and the public information officer?
Note: In general, it would be fair to say KFDA’s media relations were inconsistent and
passive. First, by not disclosing important information, KFDA drove reporters to rely on less
knowledgeable information sources. As a result, media reports often contradicted KFDA’s
position and made the organization look incompetent. Second, KFDA never officially apologized
for their mistakes, notwithstanding consumers’ claims. Whereas this may be standard practice for
governmental agencies, it is not conducive for relationship building. Rather than taking
responsibility for its actions, it appeared that KFDA shifted the blame to the media, the police,
and the public. It would not be wise to blame the media even if the media also made mistakes,
because the media can be the most important channel to communicate with the public and
keeping good relationship with the media is critical especially during a crisis. KFDA should
have perceived the media as one of the publics, but it seems that it avoided the media. As a
whole, KFDA did not “listen to the public” and was not proactive to the public’s information
Teaching Note: Garbage Dumpling 7
5. What was the status of the public information office in the organization? What would be the
organizational factors which might influence the effectiveness of communications?
Note: Through the discussion, students would realize how the empowerment of public
relations affects an organization’s communication excellence. In general, it seems that the status
of public information office in PIO was not high. There were only four officers in the PIO and
no professional experience or communication education was required of the chief officer. In
terms of organizational flow, the PIO was not able to communicate effectively with the
commissioner because of layers of approvals which may have hindered the building of a
dominant coalition between PIO and the top officers. This lack of professionalism and
devaluation of public relations function may have contributed to ineffective communication.
Also, the main functions of PIO focused on information dissemination rather than relationship
building. This type of public relations model, i.e. press agentry model or public information
model (L. Grunig, J. Grunig, & Dozier, 2002), is common in governmental agencies, but this
case supports that governmental agency public relations need to evolve toward two-way
symmetrical model. The lecturer may introduce the concepts of “excellence studies” by Grunig
et al. and show the students how they are applied in the case. Finally, the breakdown of internal
communication might be considered. It seemed the important internal information regarding the
issue was not readily available and not effectively communicated within the organization. Also,
the staffs did not provide the media with a consistent message.
6. Considering the constraints, how could KFDA actively have dealt with the post-crisis
situation? What kind of information and strategies might be necessary to assure the public
and minimize the damage of the innocent companies? If you were the chief official of the
public information office, what would you do?
Note: In the discussion, evaluation of KFDA’s post-crisis action can be guided by one of
the Page Principles, “prove it with action.” Did KFDA take full responsibility? Was its
statement and action consistent? Also, it can be discussed how the ruined trust affected KFDA’s
follow-up actions. In this part, it is important to help students apply the principles of a public
relations campaign. For example, what should be the goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics of
the public relations program to contain the situation and move toward regaining the trust? How
would you evaluate the successfulness? How can the target publics be segmented and who are
the primary target publics? There is no right or wrong answer but students should be encouraged
Teaching Note: Garbage Dumpling 8
to develop strategic and creative thinking.
Grunig, L., Grunig, J., & Dozier, D. M. (2002). Excellent Public Relations and Effective
Organization: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.