“It’s not from Tesco is it, Dad?”

Last week was a great one for jokes. Horsemeat found in Tesco’s burgers. What a godsend to the Twittering classes. Heard about Tesco’s new slogan? Every my little pony helps. And for the English lit graduates amongst you, Horsemeat or not horsemeat? That is the equestrian. (For more humour on this and other current events, check the blog from my colleague, Tom Morton.)

And there we might have left it. The horsemeat scandal knocked £300m off the value of Tesco shares, but one city analyst is reported to have shrugged. ‘So what? The share price will recover, a few people will get sacked, life will move on.’

Will it though? I’m not so sure. The Tesco story broke on the same day HMV called in the administrators. The next day it was Blockbuster’s turn, as reports emerged that the major hedge funds were starting to make substantial bets against British retailers, including M&S, Debenhams and – you guessed it – Tesco.

So what should Tesco do now? Well, they’ve said sorry and they’ve withdrawn the burgers. They’ve said there are only two possible reasons for horsemeat in the burgers – deliberate fraud by someone in their supply chain, or gross incompetence.

I don’t think that’s enough. On Saturday I put a burger in front of my eldest son – home made, meat from an independent butcher. Dan eyed it suspiciously. “It’s not from Tesco is it, Dad?” When your burgers are being discussed in the playground – and not in flattering terms – then you’re in trouble.

So Tesco have problems – but what if the problems are closer to home? Supposing your company has committed the electrical/mechanical/marketing/legal equivalent of putting horsemeat in the burgers? Even if the publicity is only going to be local, it can still be hugely damaging. What should you do? Here’s my five-point plan for putting it right as quickly as possible.

1. Admit it. What brings our politicians down in the end? They never admit it; they always pretend it was someone else’s fault. And it never works. ‘Yes, we got it wrong: here’s what we’re doing to put it right’ is the formula that does work.

2. …And don’t forget to say sorry. Just apologise – and do it sincerely.

3. Don’t hide. When Toyota famously had a problem in the US with ‘unintended acceleration’ the initial damage to their reputation was done as much by no-one from the company being available as it was by their cars randomly speeding up. If something has gone wrong you will only compound the problem by hiding from it and being ‘tied up on another call.’

4. The boss has to front-up. Let’s imagine for a moment that a wing dropped off a Virgin plane as it crossed the Atlantic. It is unimaginable that Richard Branson would hide behind a ‘spokesman’ or another director. If you’re the face of the company – as so many of my Board members are – then you’re the face of the company in bad times as well as good.

5. Finally, get some good news out there as quickly as possible. This doesn’t mean everyone will forget the bad news – horsemeat in the burgers isn’t a case of today’s news being tomorrow’s chip paper – but do something to redress the balance. Give people something else to talk about.

The best solution is not to put horsemeat in the burgers in the first place – but if it’s happened, those five points should help to minimise the damage and make sure the tongues don’t wag for too long. That’s my view – but if you’d like a real expert’s view don’t forget to check this IOD event in York where former BBC media chief Donald Steel will be talking about ‘protecting your brand in a crisis.’


One comment

  1. tommortonharrogate · January 25, 2013

    I’m told that Tesco’s meatballs are the dog’s b*llocks! (many thanks to Ian Thackeray for sharing this with me)

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