The recent Horse meat scandal that galloped (sorry) across Europe spawned a huge stable of bad jokes. A large proportion of these were aimed directly at the global convenience food brand Findus, the original source of the crisis.

The initial response to “Horse gate” by Findus was patchy to say the least e.g. the homepage stayed with a picture of beef lasagne and “we only use the best ingredient” for some time after the crisis emerged. The home page still has no mention of the scandal or rectification plans. The Findus UK site now has a brand crisis handling message on.

A brand with global sales of $1.5 billion in 2011, will undoubtedly be worth considerably less in 2013, as well as a 50 year old brand left in tatters. Their response clearly demonstrates that there was no effective crisis management plan in place.

Findus failed to realise that particularly with the rise of social media there is nowhere for brands to hide. It is critical in any crisis to be proactive and to show that you will do what is necessary to rectify the issue. By not getting to grips with the crisis immediately, Findus have left themselves with an enormous task to rebuild their brand and consumer trust.

Here are my suggested steps to help a brand navigate a crisis:

1. Plan – Set about drawing up a pre-planned set of guidelines for how to deal with crises.

Many organisations are only concerned with their immediate goals such as their latest sales or marketing plans and targets. Crisis planning is one of those things to do when they are not so busy. However, as the Findus example has demonstrated it can take years to build a reputation but just a few short hours to destroy it.

Know The Threats – Get Ready For Them

Every company must have an idea of the potential threats facing them. Crisis management is about speed of response.  Pre-approved template initial statements should be ready to use if required.

2. Acknowledge the problem/issue and apologise.

Even if you can’t offer an explanation then you need to tell people you are looking into it and will keep them updated. The first 48 hours of every crisis are critical. Not communicating in this period leads to a void that can and will easily be filled with thousands of negative comments that are then much harder to deal with.

I suggest that there are 3 key messages that can be used for every crisis:

  • “We have a plan to deal with …”  that it why it is important to have a plan!
  • “We are thinking about those affected/our hearts and prayers go out to those …” You need to show empathy/compassion for those affected/hurt/killed – depending on the crisis .
  • “We immediately began our own investigation to make sure that we …” You need to commit to finding out what went wrong and taking the necessary steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

It goes without saying that these statements need to be backed up with immediate action.

3. Get Outside Help

I would always recommend that if there is a real crisis you should always seek outside help. This is not an admission that a crisis cannot be handled, rather that the crisis leader is being particularly thorough. Outside help are there to support the crisis team leader and ensure that nothing is overlooked.

4. Inform

62% of customers are now using social media for customer service issues and nearly a third use branded social pages on Facebook to ask product questions. Therefore in any crisis social media channels are now one of the first places consumers go to vent their anger and frustration. Communities need to be kept informed and updated so feeding information through relevant social channels is a must and it is also useful to include FAQ’s on your site.

A good example of this is Tesco’s response to the horse meat crisis. Chief executive Philip Clarke appeared in a video blog on Tesco’s website, in which he said:

“Nothing is more important to Tesco than the trust our customers place in us. And that trust depends on the quality of the products we sell.”

He described a number of measures that the supermarket was taking in response to horse being found in some of its own-brand meat products. One of the measures includes a website dedicated to updating the consumer on their supply chain efforts.

It is also really important to keep your internal staff updated on the situation and advise them of what they should say and what they should do if they are asked by an external party about the issue.

Staff need to be given regular briefings and updates, not only to ensure they have the most up to date picture should they be asked, but also to reassure them that things are under control.

Your brand is also manifested via any external interactions that staff have so they need to be confident and on message.

5.  Monitor then respond

It is vital that conversations about the brand are monitored. This should be done as a matter of course to help inform e.g. marketing activity but particularly during a crisis to ensure effectiveness of messaging. Negative posts should be responded to. Even if the volume prohibits individual response, common themes should be addressed.

The UK supermarket chain Waitrose, not involved in the horse meat scandal did respond to their consumers. See below a Twitter conversation about customers buying beef burgers from Waitrose:

Waitrose monitor conversations and as a result of this exchange they  decided to further reassure everyone that they use 100% British beef from their very own selected farms:



By monitoring sentiment and responding quickly Waitrose quickly and efficiently responded with reassurance before things could escalate.

Finally it should not be forgotten that although a crisis is always a dire time for any brand, in every crisis is an opportunity. Waitrose were not implicated in the horse meat scandal but took it as a further opportunity to build their brand’s core values of trust and quality.

The horse meat scandal should have taught brands that they need to:

  • understand what consumers are saying about their brand
  • prepare for a crisis.


After all brands do not want their customers to gallop away…