The horsemeat scandal and reputation

Photo of beefburgersThe horsemeat scandal has given all self-respecting commentators an excuse to put pen to paper, usually with one or two horsey puns thrown in for good measure.

But, as I want to address the importance of reputation, maybe I am best leaving out the jokes. I wouldn’t like to ruin my own reputation.

Much of the debate about this horsemeat scandal has focussed, quite rightly, on the issue of food safety, especially given the fact that the banned human drug phenylbutazone, commonly referred to as bute, has been found in horsemeat destined for the human food chain.

From a public relations perspective, there will be currently dozens, if not hundreds, of PR managers in food companies, trying to put into action everything they have rehearsed about crisis management.

Both Morrisons and The Co-operative have so far been the most visible food retailers on the news, with a recent Channel Four News interview with Peter Marks, Chief Executive at The Co-operative Group , giving his organisation the opportunity to publicly reaffirm its commitment to providing unadulterated food, the very reason the Co-operative Movement was established in the first place.

But crisis management is only one aspect of managing reputation. Once a crisis hits, all hands are needed on deck to deal with the media (and public) onslaught that can follow. Especially now, with our 24 hour rolling news, PR managers will be kept on their toes with requests for information, press statements and interviews.

But during a crisis, one eye needs always to be kept looking to the future. Sometimes in the middle of a crisis it is hard to imagine that the media frenzy will die down again, but inevitably it will.

Organisations, ideally with input from their marketing and PR professionals, have to establish their route out of the crisis and put strategies and policies in place that can build their trust and reputation again.

This horsemeat scandal has hit reputations hard. Consumers are rightly worried that they can no longer trust the information provided by retailers and manufacturers on their food packaging.  If horsemeat can be passed off as beef, or pork end up in beef meatballs, who is to say that we can trust the list of ingredients on any other product?

The food industry now has the perfect opportunity to massively simplify both their supply chain and their products themselves as one way to rebuild confidence. Retailers and manufacturers need to know where all the ingredients in food products come from and consumers should be able to easily read, and understand, the ingredients contained in the products.

The highly processed and complex formulation of many foodstuffs these days has resulted in consumers having to put their trust in the retailer.  The simplification of products, so that they contain fewer ingredients, combined with better labelling of where products actually come from, rather than just where the product was ‘assembled’ , could be a useful strategy in rebuilding consumer confidence.

But such fundamental change is not easily embraced by complex large businesses.  The likely focus for any rebuilding of public confidence is surely going to be testing. A rigorous regime of food testing – with the results published – is likely to pay dividends in terms of reputation and trust. Trust is built slowly by the aggregation of years of positive experiences and if the food industry and government get behind transparent testing, consumers are likely to once again be confident in their food.

Although there has been a reported 30% increase in sales in butchers’ shops around the country, the predominance of the supermarkets means that consumers will increasingly move back to them as trust in their products increases. However, supermarkets and food producers will now need to operate for a prolonged period with no further issues or scandals in order for the trust-o-meter to rise.

Honesty has always been a key element in a business’s reputation, and openness and greater transparency about the food they sell will help supermarkets win back the hearts and minds of consumers.