Now that a class action looks set to be brought against Tiger Brands over the listeriosis crisis, the company is certainly counting the costs of its mistakes.
Not picking up that some of the cold meats produced at one of its factories in Polokwane had been contaminated with listeria was one of them.
But from a communications point of view, one of the biggest crisis mistakes any brand can make is to not to confide in the consumer during difficult times. Responding too late or hoping that the issue would not pop up in the media or social media is unfortunately the approach of too many corporate companies.
This is what Enterprise (the Tiger Brands subsidiary that makes cold meats) did wrong in its communication with the media, the public and with the government during the listeriosis crisis.
Once a crisis strikes, it is vital to act quickly, and to acknowledge the problem immediately. Confide in your stakeholders, tell them what the issue is and that you are doing everything in your power to get to the bottom of it, and once you do, you will tell them how you’re going to fix it. Then do it.
Cut the BS
Corporate lip service is not going to cut it. Your consumers can see through the BS and will hold you accountable, as they rightfully should.
When you do engage with your stakeholders, do so thoughtfully and considerately. In the case of Enterprise, the listeriosis outbreak was responsible for the deaths of at least 180 people and 1000 others being infected. These “consumers” are part of somebody’s family, so Enterprise can expect angry responses from those who lost loved ones or who suffered ill health as a result.
Granted, it was impossible for Enterprise to immediately have a database of everyone affected but if they had entrusted the media with their side of the story, or provided guidelines in terms of which products were affected, or the symptoms to look out for, or where to seek medical help from Enterprise, it would have softened the blow.
Answering the media’s questions openly and honestly, will not only provide consumers with clarity but will help maintain trust in the brand.
Communication is key
Always plan the next communication steps in order of priority and keep communication lines open. Brands cannot over-communicate in times of crises, provided that the information has been verified and is accurate.
With regards to government engagement, the scale of the crises will determine its involvement – as with the listeriosis epidemic. The Enterprise disaster could have been minimised had they partnered with the government.
Through the media, consumers could have been informed that if they showed the symptoms published, they could have sought help from their local clinics, at no cost to them.
The government would have made their medical networks aware of the outbreak and, through this partnership, Enterprise could potentially have saved the lives of many.
Due to the affordability of certain Enterprise products, polony is almost a staple food for many poor South Africans. Will the brand suffer financial losses? Undoubtedly!
The more discerning consumer will not easily forget what happened and how the situation was managed. The lower-income consumer will continue to support the brand because it provides an affordable source of protein, and there are very limited price alternatives.
Large corporations cannot only implement a reputation management strategy in times of crises. They should have had the necessary media relationships in place long before that. Stakeholders should have known what the company stands before the disaster. They should know who and what drives the organisation’s behaviour, what is considered important to them, how they link in with their consumers, what their charitable programmes are, how staff are treated, what value investors get.
The list of pre-disaster public relations opportunities are endless, and it is unfortunate, that many corporate companies do not have this in place because PR is often considered a nice to have. Once they realise, (and this epiphany, often happens after a crisis) that PR can make a positive impact on the organisation’s bottom line, it is only then that they adopt it as a strategic business function.
Reputations are built on trust, which can be lost due to a variety of reasons. Boards of companies often forget the human element behind the sales drive: the consumer who makes a purchasing decision based on trust, pride, admiration, feel-good factors, and responsible corporate citizenry.
Price is not always the only determining factor. It is impossible to say how long it will take the consumer to trust Enterprise again, but it can happen with a strategic public relations plan in place, that focuses on direct, honest and authentic communication with the consumer as well as all other stakeholders that were impacted by the disaster.
Enterprise needs to give people a reason to believe in the brand and to trust them again.
• Madelain Roscher is managing director at public relations firm PR Worx