Shutting the stable door: supermarket crisis communications

With news today that the Food Standards Agency is doubling the number of DNA tests to include steak, stock cubes and dripping, the full extent of the horse meat scandal is still not known. It’s a challenge, but getting crisis communications right can make all the difference.

Press pictures of ready meals containing contaminated beef being swept from shelves started a public panic about the content of processed food. In the following days, the supermarkets handled the crisis in different ways. Some used a personal approach: Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke used his blog to communicate to customers and Waitrose managing director Mark Price issued an open letter. Both were good examples of how to convey the three key messages: we have a plan; we are sorry; we have taken steps to make sure it will never happen again. Mr Price went on to invite customers to call a dedicated hotline if they had any further concerns.

In addition to written statements, chief executives and managing directors faced difficult questions from hostile journalists and tried to tread the fine line between issuing a message that is legally sound and one that satisfies the public’s desire for humility.

Interviews provided some with opportunities to put forward the facts of the situation together with corporate messages, claiming a desire for truth and transparency in the murky world of meat processing. Morrisons re-ran a series of television adverts emphasising their relationship with traditional British farmers and Asda, Tesco and Waitrose ran full page advertisements in the press. Yet Malcolm Walker, chief executive of Iceland, took a rather different approach.

Iceland opted for robust defence rather than apologies and printed a full page advert in every major newspaper on Monday, highlighting its track record while not passing up on the opportunity to score points against Marks and Spencer and undermine the credibility of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s tests. Mr Walker, in an interview continued in this vein, saying that supermarkets could not be held responsible for the crisis, blaming the public sector for being ‘reliant on dodgy cutting houses and backstreet manufacturers’ and saying that he would not personally eat value supermarket products ‘because they won’t contain much meat’. He distanced his company from the other supermarkets but it was what Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister would have called a ‘brave’ crisis communications statement.

The major players have shown a more cautious hand: Dalton Philips, chief executive of Morrisons took pains to distinguish his business from the other supermarkets’ by emphasising the traceability of meat products through its accredited farms, its own abattoirs and meat processing plants. In the Sunday Telegraph, Waitrose’s Mark Price took the opportunity to ally his business with the British meat industry and consolidate his company’s thoughtful middle class credentials, saying that meat ‘can no longer be considered a cheap commodity’ with the rising costs of livestock and feed. He also expressed satisfaction that the scandal has at least opened up the debate about the ‘true economics of food’. You could almost imagine that he welcomed the opportunity to question the ethics of cheap food production. Bravo.

Call it pragmatism or opportunism. Whichever it is, it is not limited to supermarket bosses. It was amusing to see the Mini Cooper newspaper advert which boasted that the car had ‘beef’ and ‘a lot of horses hidden in it’ showing that a rapid response can raise a smile. For within every crisis lurks an opportunity; and for those supermarkets that sell everything from fresh bread to financial services and microwaves to beef burgers there is a lot at stake.