How to deal with a food and drink public relations crises

A year on from the “horse gate” crisis, food fraud was again recently in the news after checks on hundreds of food samples from West Yorkshire, revealed that more than a third were not what they claimed to be, or were mislabelled in some way.

The tests by a public laboratory are said to have revealed problems such as mozzarella being sold that is less than half real cheese, ham on pizzas that is either poultry or "meat emulsion", and frozen prawns that are 50 per cent water, according to tests by a public laboratory.

These findings make worrying reading for the food industry, already suffering from consumer scepticism about what really goes into food.

In July 2013 a Mintel survey found that just half (49 per cent) of all Brits trust the food industry to provide safe food. What’s more, only 42 per cent believe the food industry is able to effectively react to food scares (such as BSE and horse meat).

The West Yorkshire findings also highlight the essential need for food and drink companies to prepare themselves to handle negative headlines caused by product recalls.

Separate Mintel figures reveal that between 2001 and 2011 there were 2,500 documented food recalls around the world – that’s over two per month. Product recalls are the stuff of food industry nightmares. They can include problems with ingredients such as Suddan Red, production contamination as happened to Perrier Water or product tampering which has affected numerous brands. Other problem areas for food companies are scare campaigns from activists on issues such as GM, or events that are totally beyond your control like mad cow disease, bird flu and the petrol tanker strike. Whatever the issue, you can be sure that at some stage nearly all food and drink businesses will have a crisis to deal with.

Businesses face some tough decisions when they realise a product or service is faulty. Do they try and fix it without drawing it to the attention of the press, or do they hold their hands up and admit a problem? The former runs the risk of exposure and negative headlines, the latter runs the risk of undermining customer confidence and harming the brand.

We are all familiar with companies that have had problems with their products and then compounded the issue with poor communications – Toyota and NatWest spring to mind. However the businesses that get it right usually quickly recover from any downturn in sales and negative brand impact.

If managed well, a crisis can help increase brand loyalty in the long term, as consumers credit companies for doing the right thing. For this reason I usually advise clients to come clean and admit they have a problem. Your customers will forgive you if you explain what’s happened, what they won’t forgive is misleading information.

One well-known case was the decision by Britivic to recall its Fruit Shoot brand after a six-year old boy in Colchester was found by his mother, choking on a detached part of a newly-introduced non-spill cap known as the Magicap.

While other businesses may have dismissed the issue as a one-off, Britvic understood that the Fruit Shoot brand could be seriously damaged if parents, fearing their kids could choke, stopped buying the drink. The company acted quickly and recalled the drink, a decision which it has been estimated cost it £25 million.

This is the first rule of crisis communications – stay in control. By acting quickly Britvic set the agenda and tone of online comment and media coverage.

The second rule is that nowadays there is nowhere to hide. The rise of the internet and social media means that brands can no longer hide if they have a problem. This is especially the case for any company in the food, drink and packaging industries. When a crisis hits it’s too late to plan.

To create a plan you first of all need to identify what could go wrong. Do you have full control of your supply chain? How good are your employee relations? How rigorous are your production processes? Identify any action you can take to improve them. You also need to ask the “what if” questions. How will the business cope if a factory burns down, an employee is killed or a supplier lets you down? Also look at the wider world, what are hot issues with activists and the media – palm oil, salt reduction, nutrition battery farming – where do you stand and how would your position play with customers and the media?

Next, start defining your position, planning responses to different scenarios and equipping yourself to deal with a crisis. This involves writing your crisis plan, creating a clear chain of command, identifying and training your media spokespeople and most importantly your post-crisis strategy, what will you do to repair any damage?

With your plan in place you can then see how it performs with crisis drills. You also need to keep it up to date as issues change and the unexpected happens. It is important to keep an eye on consumer trends and market developments.

Let’s hope you never have the need to use your plan, but should you do so it will give your business the structure and confidence to deal with a crisis in a professional way. As the old adage goes: failing to plan is planning to fail.

Michael Bennett, managing director of specialist food communications consultancy Pelican PR

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