“Told my mate I had a hot date with an Italian Stallion – sounds a lot better than saying I’m sitting at home eating a Findus lasagne for one.” And so the Tweets went on…
The horse meat scandal has led the news agenda for weeks. First discovered in frozen burgers bought from supermarket giants including Tesco, products containing up to 100 per cent horse meat have subsequently been found in food heading for school dinners, served up to Britain’s incarcerated and rolled up into meatballs and plated up in Ikea’s restaurants. The story has rumbled on with food producers, distributors, food regulators and the Government taking their turn in the hot seat about the lack of accountability down and up the food chain.
When faced with a crisis it is difficult not to react with fear and anxiety. The speed at which news (bad news in particular) is spread on social media means it’s all the more important to have crisis plans in place and to react speedily and sensibly – not hastily. The need for crisis management has never been greater for the food industry. So what does the horse meat scandal tell us about the right and wrong ways to handle a crisis?
The right way:
Let’s take supermarket giant Tesco, which had products containing horse meat for sale in their stores. They put well planned crisis management straight into action, initiating a product recall, putting full page adverts in the press and using their website to explain to customers exactly what was happening and what they were doing about the problem.
• Recognise the problem. Don’t try and cover it up, pretend it’s not happening or pass the buck*.
• Be honest. Tell your customers, clients and staff what has happened and what action you are taking.
• Act quickly and be decisive. It is essential to be proactive. Get a well written statement out which tells people what has happened and what you are doing. Line up spokespeople for media request and ensure they are well briefed.
• Keep your customers, clients and staff informed. Up-date websites, statements and keep on top of social media.
• Think about getting a high ranking member of staff to issue an apology. This shows you are taking the problem seriously and dealing with it at the highest levels.
*Away from the public arena you can investigate who is to blame, but the most important initial steps are to take responsibility and show you are taking the problem seriously. In other words, manage the crisis and don’t let it manage you.
The wrong way:
Frozen food giant Findus became embroiled in the scandal after the media found out they had known for 12 days that some of their products contained 100 per cent horse meat It took them a further seven days to inform stores and pull the product from supermarket shelves.
• Findus failed to recognise size of the problem. Do not underestimate a potential crisis. Think about how the story will be picked up by the media and the impact this could have on your business.
• Findus kept quiet. Do not wait to see what media coverage there is before you respond – being reactive can be extremely detrimental and it can give out entirely the wrong message. A message that says you are trying to hide something and that you are not in control.
• They were slow to react. It’s so important to be proactive.
• Didn’t tell anyone until forced to.
There are many lessons which can be learnt from the horse meat crisis. Here are a few: Put crisis management plans in place and revisit them regularly; Make sure social media plays a part in your crisis management plan; Train and brief senior staff members who may be called upon to be company spokespeople during times of crisis.