What could be your firm’s ‘horsemeat in burgers’ scandal?

03/06/2013 09:36:38
The damage caused to the meat industry earlier this year by the horsemeat in burgers scandal will take many years to repair.  And for some brands it may be too late – if Findus is still around by the time you read this, how long will it be before they need to rebrand?

Concerned consumers who have lost confidence in manufacturers and retailers have sought alternatives.  In the second half of February, sales of vegetarian products boomed with Quorn seeing demand doubling.  In the same period sales of frozen beefburgers fell 43%.  Ready-meal manufacturers have been hit badly with a number making redundancies since February.

For those of us outside the food industry we may have looked at the situation in amazement, amusement or disgust, and even changed our eating habits – but how many of us have thought about our own crisis situation?

Don't bury your head in the sand

In 30 years working with some of the biggest names in the door and window industry, as well as companies in numerous other sectors, what is most alarming is that most – very large, large and small – don’t see crisis communications planning as a priority.  In general, we find this is simply down to the optimism of humanity – “it’ll never happen to us” – but it can and, sometimes, it does.  So it’s well worth taking some time to think about what the equivalent of the ‘horsemeat in burgers’ scandal in your organisation could be.

The law of averages means that, at some stage, your business will face a crisis of some kind. So, like the boys scouts, ‘be prepared’.  The worst thing you can do is bury your head in the sand!

What is a crisis?

A crisis is simply something that potentially risks damaging your reputation – and it is likely to fall into one of three categories:

1. Something of your own making

It could be that your product quality isn’t up to scratch, noisy lorries leaving your factory at unsociable hours resulting in neighbour protests, or news to staff badly delivered.

2. A situation where you are a victim of someone else’s actions

Perhaps a competitor is spreading rumours about your products and services or a disgruntled ex-employee takes you to a tribunal with a view to going public with their grievances.

3. Simple misfortune

Maybe you are in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people – it could be a subcontractor going bust on you and customers feeling let down, facing production disruption through a factory fire, or an IT systems failure that cripples your business.

Understanding your business – and the risks

Every manager and owner will know the importance of regular financial auditing to keep the business in check.  Crisis management starts by doing the same kind of auditing of your reputational risks.

Sit down with your team and think about what could go wrong and what you would do – if anything.  And go through ‘what if?’ scenarios to consider what the outcomes could be.

You may not be able to predict every eventuality but you’ll definitely be able to improve your readiness to deal with the most likely situations – and you’ll stand in better stead should the worst happen.

Put simply, you should try to do whatever you can to avoid the situation in the first place – see where your vulnerabilities lie and minimise them.


Coping mechanisms

If you’ve faced a crisis situation in the past, you’ll know how time-demanding it can be.  Don’t let your day-to-day work provide a convenient excuse to avoid dealing with the crisis.  At the heart of managing the crisis when it does hit is effective communication – if you say nothing, people and the media will speculate and draw their own (and often wrong) conclusions.
If you don’t have time to deal with the situation, bring someone in who does, such as a crisis PR specialist.  But remember: it’s not about spin – it’s about spelling out the facts and keeping customers, the local community, investors, employees, the media and anyone else connected with your crisis informed.  

Go through these steps and you’ll be well on the way to managing the situation as best you can:

1.    Assess the situation – what’s happened and why? Who does it affect and how?
2.    Are you a victim or the perpetrator?
3.    Who knows so far and who else needs to know?
4.    Step into the other person’s shoes – what will they think or fear?
5.    What do they need to know?
6.    Who is going to tell them and how?
7.    Think through your ‘what if?’ scenarios and put plans in place.
8.    Think through the risks of the social media age – when - and when not - to engage.

Further insights and advice are available in our crisis management whitepaper.

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