Findus scandal is a reminder that old-fashioned corporate indifference is no way out of a modern PR crisis
“News now is not the newspaper”, said FT editor Lionel Barber on Sunday, ending a week when Findus learnt this the hard way.
As the horsemeat scandal turned from story to meme, the brand’s private equity owners must have longed for an era when the news cycle was circular. Instead, they had to watch social media amplify and elongate the scandal.
Crisis PR: Findus fell at the first hurdle
I did a couple of interviews on the subject and every time was asked what, if phoned by Findus right now, I would advise them to do.
Let’s start by saying, as Charles Arthur did in a great piece yesterday, that this is a fiendishly difficult question. But it’s clear to me that the brand handled this badly, in part because theirs was an analogue response in a digital age.
The 20th Century PR primer suggests that you can “spin your way out of a crisis”. It also warns that precipitate intervention will “add fuel to the fire”. Whoever wrote the first statement was following it.
"We understand this is a very sensitive subject for consumers and we would like to reassure you we have reacted immediately. We do not believe this to be a food safety issue. We are confident that we have fully resolved this supply chain issue.”
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Reassurance of action without evidence of it (spin) followed by an attempt to distance Findus from the problem (“supply-chain issues”) displays a fixation with “moving on” from the story. In the days when newspapers were tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, this used to work. It doesn’t any more.
Nothing invites mockery more than corporate legalese and journalists quoting and re-quoting social media ridicule gave momentum to the story. To make it worse, Findus’s words are now embedded in the DNA of the web, a permanent reminder of its complacency.
Of course, from a legal standpoint the Findus statement was accurate, but no one cares. All the public read was a lack of empathy and, more importantly, no human face taking responsibility for the crisis.
Forward 24 hours and a thousand ‘furlong’ jokes later it was clear the story wasn’t moving on. By this time I assume the brand had brought in PR advice and the next statement showed it.
“We know that many people have been concerned by the news this week that tests have shown that some of our Findus beef lasagne has been found to contain horse meat. We understand those concerns; we are sorry that we have let people down.”
An apology, although late, was the right gesture. But again, Findus put forward no one to make it, reinforcing an impression of corporate indifference. Written words on screen simply invited hundreds of tweeters to parse them, which they did enthusiastically.
The Findus experience shows us that the digital age binds words and action together. Other brands understood this much better – for instance, Burger King apologised and took action before anyone knew it had done anything wrong. It’s a world where brands in trouble really are either quick or dead.