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Findus fiasco is recipe for reputation damage

March, 2013

In the world of PR and crisis communications hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to not falling at the first fence, as recently done by Findus.

Nobody can have missed the media maelstrom that engulfed Findus UK after horsemeat was discovered in its frozen lasagne – a real-life media relations ‘night-mare’. However, what most people will be unaware of is that the company disposed of its entire communications team back in 2011.

The move, part of the company’s efforts to cut costs, could arguably have been its most expensive failure to date, as many in the PR industry considered its handling of the horsemeat crisis lamentable.

“While the lasagne may have been fit for human consumption, its PR was certainly not fit for purpose. And while the private-equity backed frozen food company may have appointed a heavyweight agency to step into the breach, no agency, no matter how good, can turn around the tide of negative headlines at the push of a button,” said Maxim’s Andrew Metcalf.

He added: “Successful media relations is all about the actual relations, and works best when they are built on understanding, trust and delivery. Being brought in to solve a crisis after the event, with little or no preparation, is always going to be a big task.”

Crisis communications

Thinking about the response to the PR crisis and adopting a horse-related analogy, Tescos was quick out of the gates, while Findus’ PR was still back in the paddock putting on its saddle.

“Even when Findus did get in the race the company had been overtaken by the unfolding Europe-wide events, and finally limped home a very sorry, and arguably crippled last.”

Where Tesco did come in for criticism was over its failure to put up a senior spokesperson for live interview, preferring instead to issue a video press release of Chief Executive Philip Clarke to the broadcast media. It was right of Tesco to seek to reassure the public, and respond to politicians’ criticism that the supermarkets needed to improve their communication with the public, however, the problem came in the delivery of the message.

Andrew Metcalf added: “By choosing not to provide live interviews, and questioning from the press, it gave the impression that Tesco was not confident of its position. The use of a video press release showed a lack of transparency, and rather than reinforce its reputation by empathising with its customers, it did the exact opposite, and arguably also undermined its relations with the media.”

As a result of the fallout from the horsemeat furore there will now be many business leaders, regardless of the industry they are in, viewing PR not as an expensive add-on, but an essential ingredient to help protect their hard-fought and hard-earned reputation.

What are the lessons?

  • Speed is of the essence, especially in today’s internet/social media driven news world. You should be prepared for the problem – and have a spokesperson media trained – before an incident happens.
  • Get a statement out quickly to the media, on your website and via social media.
  • Acknowledge the ‘problem’, apologise and promise action, in order to protect customer confidence and be consistent with your brand’s reputation.
  • Importantly, deliver the action and keep the media and stakeholders informed of progress – be transparent and respond to questions.
Andrew Metcalf - Director

Andrew Metcalf

Maxim / Director

posted in: advice, media relations, public relations, reputation management, social media,

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