Yesterday Downing Street rapped Britain’s supermarkets over the knuckles for ignoring a crucial rule of crisis management – when disaster strikes, communicate.
Regardless of how much a company knows about the crisis it’s in (or its suppliers are in), its willingness to be seen and to say something will have an enormous effect on how the public – their customers – will judge them and could significantly affect how quickly they recover from it.
Shoppers have their “contract” with the supermarket and although who is to blame for the horsemeat saga will probably not be known for some time, it’s to the supermarkets that customers will look for information, answers and reassurance.
But, with a few exceptions like Morrisons, for days there has been a deafening silence.
Even on Radio 4 yesterday, instead of supermarket executives facing questions in the wake of the Downing Street criticism, which said it was not acceptable for them to remain silent, it was left to Helen Dickinson, director of the British Retail Consortium, to explain the hush. She told Today programme presenter John Humphrys that retailers had been concentrating on testing processed beef products.
He rightly suggested that surely someone could be spared for 10 minutes to answer questions.
And don’t think these are the questions a journalist might want to ask on a whim; no, they’re the questions he or she considers shoppers would rightly want to ask.
Ironically, the silence seemed to send a loud message that no-one wanted to break cover, preferring to hide behind the wall of “we’re waiting for the results of tests on processed beef products”.
But hang on a minute…later in the day things changed: there was a response (shoppers’ interpretation: Downing Street has stirred the big retailers). But it was only a letter (shoppers’ interpretation: still no-one willing to face questions) and a group one at that, signed by key supermarket bosses.
Plus, chief executive of Tesco, Philip Clarke went on camera to describe what his company was doing to tackle the issue. That was a step in the right direction, but it was an “in-house” piece-to-camera, posted on the company’s website (and apparently recorded pre-Downing Street telling-off), so no tough questions to answer (shoppers’ interpretation: still no-one willing to face questions).
Yes, video blogs, open letters, written statements and full-page ads in national papers are part of the crisis management armoury, but when a big battle rages, you must be seen to be on the front line taking questions, not hiding behind the marketing and PR barricades.
So what we now seem to have, though I doubt the supermarkets will admit it, is a game of catch-up, which is never a great position to be in.
Contrast that with Morrisons – it’s been on the front foot throughout, giving interviews (though they’ve been helped by being keen to stress their short supply chain and good test results).
The key players have failed to realise that even a company with bad news to impart can come out with an enhanced reputation if they know how to do the interviews properly. Shoppers are surely astonished that some of the most powerful High Street names don’t appear powerful enough to handle a journalist.
As those retailers try to make up lost ground, shoppers may well regard them as trying to shut the barn door after the horse has bolted.