Over the last 10 days the horsemeat scandal has galloped from traces of horsemeat DNA in frozen beefburgers to the identification of 100% horsemeat in Findus frozen lasagnes. The course has been peppered with a succession of public apologies and statements from well-known and previously respected brands (Tesco, Findus, Iceland, Burger King, Aldi) as they apologise to their consumers and the public at large for failings in the management of their supply chains. Even those brands not affected (Sainsburys, Asda, Morrisons) are sensibly checking the integrity of their frozen meat products and withdrawing some from shelves as a precaution, whilst letting their consumers know that they are doing so.
Supply chains are particularly tricky things to police; the more suppliers, contractors and sub contractors needed in your supply chain and the more complex the relationships, the more likely it is that one of them will have cut corners to win your business. So it was perhaps unwise to announce, as Burger King did on 16th January that they were satisfied with the assurances of their principal supplier that their beef was untainted. It later transpired that Comigel had been economical with the truth and some of the supposedly 100% British beef actually came from Poland, necessitating an embarrassing second apology.
An apology is one of the most important elements in a crisis management plan. It can negate much of the criticism that is likely to be streaming in, and can open the door for more positive and two-way communication with stakeholders. It also allows the brand to start to regain control of the situation. It is no surprise then that public apologies have become a common accompaniment to corporate indiscretions and failures in the past few years; so much so, that any company facing a major public crisis would need to think carefully of the reputational implications were they to decide not to apologise.
Even worse than no apology is the apology that comes too late. Much has been made in the headlines of Findus’s week long delay between the time they were made aware that there was a problem and when they finally issued a statement. Again, history is littered with those companies whose reputation was damaged more by the delay than by the actual crisis itself. The Toyota accelerator recall and the Sony hacking crisis are just two crises where a delay in informing stakeholders made matters worse.
So, what are the do’s and don’ts of making a public apology?
Well, the key points of best practice are well understood, but their application by brands often varies considerably. Firstly, one needs to think and respond like a human being, not as the inanimate brand you represent. Your very first public statement of the crisis will set the tone for how your brand is perceived throughout it – so show sensitivity, and humility if appropriate, and ensure people know that their health and safety are your top priority; the use of ‘We’ and ‘Us’ are prerequisites, and all of our brands cleared this relatively low hurdle.
The second is not to be tempted into the ‘non-apology’ apology, the one written by lawyers fearful of the fallout from a possible class action. This manages to avoid the use of words such as ‘sorry’ or ‘we apologise’ completely. So much case material exists for this one that it should have been another easy hurdle to jump, but Findus almost managed a refusal by titling their apology “A Message to our Customers’ and then not mentioning that they were sorry until the second paragraph. Tesco, on the other hand jumped this hurdle with ease, titling their statement “We Apologise.”
Best Practice for apologies would suggest the inclusion of a number of key elements in any public apology. These are often described as the 5Cs:
Compassion – If anyone has been hurt or killed in the crisis, start by expressing your heartfelt condolences to those affected – and mean it! Fortunately, despite scare stories about the possible presence of cancer inducing Bute in the horsemeat, no one has yet been hurt in this crisis.
Concern – Express your concern that the incident has occurred in the first place and acknowledge the concern of your customers and stakeholders.
Commitment – Make clear your absolute commitment to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong and ensure that it will never happen again.
Control – People will feel much better if you make it clear that the crisis is being taken very seriously and that the response will be managed and controlled from the top.
Communication – Undertake to provide regular updates and information to stakeholders, particularly once your investigation has been completed. Speculation loves a vacuum and social media will fill it for you if you let it.
So, who won the race and who came in as late runners?
Well, all of the runners included the basic elements somewhere in their statement so all passed the finishing line.
Tesco led from the start, clearing each hurdle with ease and running a perfect race. They were the only company to promise to share the results of their investigation and the language and tone of their apology was pitch perfect; they crossed the finish line a full furlong ahead of the remainder of the field.
Despite being initially confident that the tainted meat didn't affect them, Burger King got held up on the rails for being forced to re-apologise or clarify the situation when their earlier assurances proved false.
Aldi, despite removing 100% beef lasagna from their shelves because ‘it did not conform to specification’ merely issued a press release ‘statement’ that contained no hint or mention of remorse or apology. And whilst Iceland secured a short lived advantage by explaining that they would use the withdrawn products to generate energy rather than sending them to landfill, the relatively low profile of both runners meant they were able to hide in the group of other more prominent runners, both finishing half way down the field.
Findus started well and were amongst the early runners for publishing their statement in the newspapers, but they were slowed by the content – a ‘Message to our Customers’ rather than an apology, and no mention of ’sorry’ until the second paragraph. The revelation late in the race that they had waited 7 days to inform the public also increased their handicap and they came in as back marker.
The Government horsemeat summit at the weekend proved that this particular crisis has legs and perhaps more revelations and apologies are still to come, not to mention of course the opportunity to trot out more excruciating horse puns.
Nick Sharples is a crisis management expert and ex Director of Corporate Communications for Sony. He is CEO of CrisisVu , a crisis monitoring service focusing on Twitter. A live demo of CrisisVu as it tracks the buzz around the horsemeat crisis can be seen at www.CrisisVu.com