What crisis management steps should EU meat producers take as scandal grows?

[WARNING: The following blog post may contain puns dangerous to one’s sanity.]

As British police and regulators raid meat processors and slaughterhouses with unbridled enthusiasm, and French prosecutors open a formal judicial investigation into whether there was fraud involved, the European horsemeat scandal continues to make waves.

Britain’s Food Standards Agency seems to be at the forefront of crisis management for the situation, especially when it comes to food producer Findus, whose beef lasagna products tested at between 60 and 100% horsemeat, and its French supplier, Comigel.

This quote, from a CNN.com article by Susannah Cullinane, has more details:

Britain’s FSA has ordered food businesses to use independent laboratories to test all beef products for authenticity — to see whether the content of the meat matches the label.

 The deadline for the first round of testing is Friday February 15.

The FSA has also ordered Findus to test for (veterinary drug phenylbutazone, aka…) bute, with results due “in the next few days” and to be published on the authority’s website.

It has advised any retailers or producers that had sourced beef products from Comigel to conduct a precautionary withdrawal of product

While it’s certainly good that authorities are enforcing regulations and digging to find the root of the issue, it would behoof meat producers and processors to resolve their own issues first.

Many consumers are extremely upset by the fact that they may have eaten horsemeat unintentionally, even if that doesn’t bother them there are very valid concerns over the mislabeling of products they put into their bodies in a regular basis.

We would strongly advise the organizations involved to harness themselves to BCM president Jonathan Bernstein’s “Five Tenets of Crisis Communications” if they wish to keep their reputations intact.

1. Prompt

If you haven’t released a statement yet, you’re behind the times. WAY behind the times. Get out there and start communicating. If you’re considering taking the ostrich approach, remember what’s still sticking out while your head’s buried in the sand.

2. Compassionate

People are angry and scared, and you have to acknowledge that fact, as well as assume some responsibility. Put yourself in their shoes and think, “what would I want to hear?”

3. Honest

Investigators and regulators will get to the bottom of this situation, and nobody likes a liar, much less wants to give them their hard-earned money. If you made a bad call, admit it. Only then can you begin to work at moving on.

4. Informative

When people are angry and scared, they want answers, NOW. Share as much as possible, and make clear that you’ll regularly share information as it comes out. Don’t have a “Worried about horsemeat?” section on your website? You should.

5. Interactive

As with every other crisis these days, audiences don’t just want a speech delivered to them. They want to ask questions, offer suggestions and be a part of the conversation between company and consumer. Make it very clear where people can reach you, and put in the effort to actually respond. Simply saying, “We hear you” can go a long way.

While some neighsayers may claim that you’re opening yourself up to trouble using these methods, the fact is that these five tenets been proven over the course of years to be the perfect combination for effective crisis communications.

There’s no such thing as letting a crisis blow over any more. Get out there, start communicating, and you’ll be that much closer to returning to business as usual.