You had to feel a pang of sympathy for poor old Bernard Matthews. First it was the annoyingly smug Jamie Oliver lambasting the turkey producer for producing the kids’ favourite, Turkey Twizzlers, and now the company’s accused of bringing bird flu into the country.
The Bernard Matthews brand has suffered in the last few years. While the company’s commercially astute (and economically viable) reaction to a convenience-food loving nation has made it into a £400 million-plus business, the rather unsavoury aftertaste has been accusations from the GM lobby, criticism from celebrity chef Oliver, convictions for animal cruelty after workers were caught playing baseball with a frozen turkey and, now, exposure to the deadly H5N1 virus.
When people’s lives are at risk, is there ever a way of avoiding some of the bad publicity? At the same time as Bernard Matthews was sweating about bird flu, Cadbury’s was busy recalling its Easter Eggs due to suspected nut contamination, the danger of which manifests itself more immediately to consumers. Although Matthew’s himself has long sworn by the tactic of keeping his head down when the brand is attacked, in this case, it was the worst possible method of dealing with the media.
“At a time of crisis, there are some key things to do,” says Tim Pile, chief executive of Cogent Meridien. “First, be upfront and honest. Front your most senior people to the world. Secondly, isolate it. Don’t let these black holes develop. Like all the famous scandals in American government, it’s the cover-up that does the damage. Get the most senior person communicating every day until the crisis is sorted. I’m speculating because I don’t know the facts, but that’s exactly it. People start filling in the blanks that they don’t know. Communicate, communicate, communicate and then, communicate some more.”
It seems communicating is something the company has fallen foul of doing (pardon the pun). Matthews has been ambushed a handful of times and has – each time – insisted he doesn’t want to comment. The firm reportedly took three days to hand over important documents and - even though it’s now reopened the factory - it’s still to put its 76 year-old founder on the frontline of the media. For a shy, retiring chief executive, Matthews’ absence would be understandable, but this is the man who donned tweed outfits to play on his Norfolk heritage and claim his turkey ‘bootiful’ on national television. Shy, he ain’t.
Nicky Unsworth, a director of BJL, believes it’s the insinuation of wrongdoing that’s most damaging and Matthews should be out in front of the media.
“It feels like they haven’t handled it brilliantly,” she says. “It feels like he [Matthews] should be coming to the fore, but he should be doing something for the industry as a whole. He should be becoming the people’s champion, rather than the villain of the piece, not that he is. But if they can turn that on its head, then he could be seen to help solve the problem. I think consumers will want to see him being almost more cautious than cavalier. The danger of re-opening the plant and exporting back to Hungary is that consumers may only see the commercial aspect of it. What they want to do is feel ‘here’s a brand that actually cares about us’. With other brands, there’s been a recall above and beyond what they needed to do. I think there’s a reassurance for consumers there.”
Lucy Bridle, director of PR at IAS Smarts, believes that Cadbury’s learnt its lessons from the salmonella scare it suffered last year when it virtually ignored the problem. This year, it has been vociferous in warning consumers, no doubt helped by the £30 million it claims to have lost in last year’s crisis.
“Not once have we seen or heard a Bernard Matthews spokesperson hit the issue head on and unfortunately in times of crisis, the speed at which you react is often a critical success factor,” Bridle says. “We saw a similar head-in-the-sand approach from Cadbury\'s last year, and it did them no favours from a reputation perspective. Where is the honest face that launched the \'Bootiful\' catchphrase in the 80s? Have all his chickens now come home to roost? The question here now is that of longer term survival and brand reputation management. Throughout the last couple of days, the company has relied very much on the authorities such as DEFRA for comment. So far it seems that you can control the spread of bird flu much better than you can control the spread of misinformation and speculation, which is the bigger threat currently to Bernard Matthews\' brand equity.”
Unsworth agrees. “I feel for them [the poultry industry],” she says. “In the past it’s been the industry as a whole, but this time it’s very much focused on Bernard Matthews. I’d be interested to see what they’ve actually done. If they’ve been knowingly importing when they know the virus is there and knowingly exporting when they know the virus is there, then that does feel a bit bizarre. I would think it would have an impact on the poultry industry, but I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have an impact on Bernard Matthews. There’s an insinuation of them not having behaved appropriately, which is yet to be proved.”
Bridle agrees with Unsworth that Matthews’ challenge is to emerge from this as a passionate spokesperson. When he was accused of claiming there was no GM-free food he could feed his turkeys, Greenpeace dumped three tons of GM-free feed on his doorstep and he did a U-turn. Can he do the same here?
“Bernard Matthews need to take full responsibility and ownership of the immediate crisis and its fallout,” says Bridle. “Along with the authorities, the company needs to be visibly accountable for making amends. The knock on effect of such a crisis has wider implications beyond the sole livelihood of the company and its 7000 staff. The entire poultry farming industry will suffer. To avoid further ruffled feathers the company needs to take swift action with a transparent future communications strategy. Crisis very often is not about what happened, but more about public perception and what people think has happened. Good PR is often about turning a difficult issue in to an industry leadership opportunity. Is Bernard Matthews up to the challenge?”