Supermarkets set the standard in horsemeat crisis communication

February 14, 2013 by Jonathan Hemus

It’s easy to be critical of organisations’ attempts at crisis communication when you’re observing from the outside.  So I’m pleased to be able to give two supermarkets a pat on the back for their crisis management response to the recent horsemeat issue, having previously given Findus a rather harder time.

It’s clear to me that both Tesco and Waitrose understand the value of reputation and have undertaken crisis management training and crisis communication planning beforehand.

Indeed, a textbook example of effective crisis management was demonstrated by Tesco in its response to the initial scare around horsemeat in burgers.  An immediate product recall demonstrated that Tesco had the will and ability to take whatever action was necessary to deal with the problem.  The immediate provision of a spokesperson for the media allowed them to quickly communicate their position to customers rather than becoming swamped by the views of others. Full page newspaper advertisements saying “we’re sorry” showed empathy for its customers and took the heat out of the issue.  And chief executive Philip Clarke used his blog to communicate directly and quickly with Tesco’s customers.  In the post he said: “Trust is hard won and easily lost. Our customers trust us that, if something goes wrong, Tesco will go above and beyond what is merely necessary to look after customers and will do the right thing, immediately and wholeheartedly”. Wise words.

Waitrose also understands the value of reputation and its open letter to customers from managing director Mark Price ticks all of the crisis communication boxes.  Firstly, it demonstrates pro-activity in communication: rather than waiting for customer enquiries Waitrose has taken the initiative by issuing the mail and showing that it cares.  Not only that, the fact that it comes from Waitrose’s managing director demonstrates senior commitment and interest.  The messaging is spot on too.  The email outlines the facts as regards Waitrose products: crises always generate a mass of speculation and rumour, so getting the facts straight is the first challenge for any business.  Then they talk about the immediate actions they are taking – including a full, no questions asked refund – to demonstrate their professionalism and responsibility.

The company then turns crisis into opportunity not only by reaffirming its commitment to British farmers and produce, but also by announcing the launch of a new range of Waitrose branded British sourced beef products. This is a masterstroke and shows that with a responsive and sensitive approach, opportunity can arise out of crisis. Mr Price signs off with an invitation for customers to call a dedicated hotline with any additional questions. Keeping communication channels open.

Both Tesco  and Waitrose understand the value of reputation and customer loyalty.  They know that the values they espouse in the good times must be visible when they deal with a major challenge.  Both have risen to the crisis management challenge and both seem likely to emerge with their reputations intact as a result of their very effective crisis communication.

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