My viewpoint: Johnny Pitt talks lacklustre PR responses to horsegate

THE HORSE MEAT scandal highlighted serious problems with the global supply chains that bring food to our plates, but caterers and retailers didn’t help themselves with a lacklustre PR response. They’ll need to do better as the story rumbles on, argues Johnny Pitt of Launch PR. 

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“I doubt we’ll see a bigger food industry story this year than horsegate. A rich seam of available puns (My Lidl Pony, anyone?) combined with food safety fears and consumer outrage would have been enough on their own to make it a big story. Throw in the sheer scale of the problem – not to mention our love of animals and insatiable appetite for meat – and you have a story that will run and run (and possibly jump too).


But, aside from the Iceland boss, Malcolm Walker, who launched into a stinging attack on the “invisible” catering sector for using “back-street manufacturers”, there were no strong statements to the press from the people selling us these products. Instead, we had carefully worded adverts. Then, when retailers finally decided it was time to speak to the press, the messages felt too crafted to be genuine – we have delisted; we’re putting customers first; this is not a safety issue.


This scandal was something that could – and should – have been predicted. The increasing complexity of the supply chain has made regular and comprehensive testing very difficult. At the same time, the recession has put pressure on prices and made consumers less brand loyal as they hunt out the cheapest deal.


So why, Walker aside, was the PR response from the consumer-facing end of the chain so pedestrian?


When the story broke, it felt like the comms teams of the suppliers and retailers were on the back foot from the beginning. Granted, a lack of information from the lower (and far flung) elements of the supply chain will have hindered the definitive statements they wanted. But anyone who works in the comms function of a large retailer, caterer or food business will know that getting information from the business can be a tricky process at the best of times.


If you know crucial information isn’t going to be available quickly, you still need to work out what you are going to say. Though not any quicker off the mark than its rivals, Waitrose responded to the crisis with robust messages about its testing process and sourcing. This helped soften the impact when it had to pull some products as a precaution.


As the story moves into its next phase – sales of frozen burgers have halved, calls are intensifying to use more British meat, independent butchers are booming – retailers, caterers, distributors and suppliers will be reviewing their systems and supply chains. They should also be reviewing responses to the crisis. The horse meat scandal might have spotlighted the problems within the complex global food chain, but if food businesses are honest with themselves, it has shown them that their complex internal and external communications policies could do with some attention too.
Food businesses should be overhauling their holding statements, their information gathering processes and their proactive engagement strategies as well. What’s more, they should be doing it sooner rather than later. Now the press have got a taste (metaphorically speaking) for horse meat stories, y”ou can bet undercover reporters are signing up for jobs in abattoirs and processing plants from Wicklow to Warsaw.


Johnny Pitt is the CEO of Launch PR, which specialises in media relations, social media and experimental campaigns