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Public Relations and Crisis Management

By The Drum | Administrator

June 20, 2002 | 8 min read

Sponsored by Durrants Media Monitoring

The scenario

Company X manufactures a range of food products and confectionery. The company employs 250 people, 180 of whom work in production. Of the total workforce, 85 are married with children.

During the last two years the company has developed product Y, an innovative chocolate bar aimed at children of pre-teenage age. Testing and sampling began four months ago, the product has been on the UK market for one month and has proved so successful that the company now pursues export to the US.

Last Monday a couple of employees of the company phoned to say they were unable to come to work as their children were ill. During the week the number of employees with sick children has increased to 18.

Late on Friday afternoon a journalist from a Sunday newspaper phoned the PR Manager of company X, asking whether the company was experiencing any problems in production. After internal checks this was denied by the PR manager.

When more journalists then phoned he got worried, but was unable to do anything – the managing director of the company was on holiday, the sales director was in the US and the production manager had already left for the weekend and was not contactable.

The denial was quoted in various newspaper reports on the Sunday that referred to fears expressed by consumer organisation Z about potential contamination of chocolate bars in general.

This consumer organisation is well known to the company as it has criticised the company in the past for product promotion aimed at children.

On Sunday evening you – the PR practitioner – receive a telephone call from the managing director of company X from his holiday destination. He is an old school friend and seeks your advice.

He tells you that earlier that day two children of his employees have been taken to hospital. They are in intensive care. Local journalists have called the company, having made the connection between the newspaper article, the two children in hospital and the company.

Furthermore, it has appeared that organisation Z is conducting research on product Y. There are rumours that the organisation is being briefed by a former employee of the company. Apparently he had sent a memo three months ago to the production manager, expressing fears for life-threatening contamination of product Y. Since then he has left the company, the memo has not been passed on and has been shredded.

The players

This scenario was compiled with the assistance of Tony Meehan of TMA Communications in Glasgow.

We asked five PR practitioners what steps the managing director of company X should take. These practitioners were Malcolm Brown, a director of Atlantic PR, Mervyn Edgecombe, managing director of MEA Public Relations, Cameron Grant, a director of 3x1, Graeme Jack, managing director of hatch-group, and Neil Smith, a director of David Budge Associates.

To ensure the scenario was as realistic as possible we gave them a tight deadline of 48 hours to respond in writing, using not more than 300 words, to the situation. You comment on the responses by visiting www.thedrum.com.

The response: what is agreed

Reading the responses, you’ll notice a consensus about the basic steps. The managing director of company X should immediately return from his holiday, form a crisis management team and establish a communication network (“don’t forget to brief the receptionists”).

All available information must be collected and an investigation by independent experts initiated. In addition, the managing director has to visit the hospital and the children’s parents, while contacting and working with all the relevant authorities.

Although no direct link between the sick children and product Y has yet been proven, everybody agrees that the company can demonstrate being a responsible manufacturer by stopping production of product Y, recalling product Y and halting the US promotion.

There are small differences in how to implement this. Grant recommends using support advertising for the product recall and a free telephone number with a 24-hour-a-day staffed help desk for public enquiries. He also proposes withdrawing all other products that could potentially have been contaminated.

Smith says the company should consider ceasing all marketing activity, appointing a fulfilment house to allow consumers to return any product and issuing refunds.

There also appears to be unanimity about being assertive, getting hold of the situation rather than being dominated by it.

While the company has to be careful about not admitting liability at this stage – as nothing has been firmly established – it is important the company avoids a “bunker under siege” mentality.

The response: differences of opinion

The differences of opinion between our five respondents arise when they discussed how the media should be informed, what steps should be taken towards consumer organisation Z and how to deal with the company’s former employee who sent the memo.

That all relevant groups, notably the company’s employees, should be informed is clear to everyone. Although none of the respondents wants to withhold information from the employees and authorities, there is some ambiguity about the media, with most practitioners leaving it unclear whether or not all information should be disclosed straight away or, in the case of new information, as soon as it becomes available.

Leaving room for interpretation, Edgecombe tells the MD to “apologise to the press for ‘inadvertently’ misleading them and to pledge to keep them fully apprised in future with twice-daily press conferences”.

Brown is the only respondent who is clear on this issue, saying the MD should be “totally frank about the situation”.

Consumer organisation Z is mentioned by Brown, Jack and Edgecombe, but not by Grant and Smith.

Brown recommends not contacting the consumer organisation because this “is a deep-rooted problem and will have to be addressed in the future”. The other two think differently while Jack says: “The PR manager should at the very least have established some sort of dialogue with consumer organisation Z in the past, and should be in a position to work these contacts now to better understand what is going on from their perspective”,

Edgecombe goes further: “Company X must urgently strike a positive working relationship with consumer organisation Z for it has the damaging potential to continually and seriously undermine the company’s credibility.”

The response: what isn’t mentioned

Edgecombe also wants the company to propose to consumer organisation Z to work together in resolving the crisis, but none of the respondents puts forward the idea that the company could approach consumer organisation Z about the issue of their research, offering, for example to pay for the investigation and publish it in full, provided it is conducted by independent scientists agreeable to all parties (at this stage it can be assumed that the health and safety authorities will conduct their own investigation).

One of the most difficult issues is what to do with the former employee and the memo sent by this employee. None of the respondents suggests specifically that it is best to inform everybody, including the media, immediately of their existence.

Only Edgecombe actually mentions the former employee. He advises a meeting with the ex-employee as early as possible: “The company should move heaven and earth to prevent him being reached first by the media or wheeled out by consumer organisation Z.” If the employee is to talk, Edgecombe continues, it should be at a joint press conference held by company X and consumer organisation Z after the employee’s claims have been validated.

The response: what you think of it

There are many other issues to consider. These include what to do when the situation stabilises, or problems such as the lack of a crisis plan, the position of the company’s PR manager or – again not mentioned by the respondents – the question of whether more former employees should be contacted.

We would like to hear from you what the MD should do, including any comments about the advice of our respondents.

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