Monthly: March 2013

Bill Nichols

10 March 2013

Bill Nichols

More than Burgers and Bolognese: Crisis, Trust and Exit Strategy

004 -March 2013

Some eight weeks on, the horse-meat saga has generated thousands of tasteless jokes (sorry) and cringe-making headlines.  More significantly, it has corroded trust in major retailers.  Among consumers most prominently.  But also across the web of stakeholder relationships which sustain major organisations.

Late last week Tesco fought back.  Understandably.  Alone among their peers, they faced a triple whammy:   still-eroding trust;  record low satisfaction scores in the latest ‘Which?’ survey; and continuing media speculation over the firm’s turnaround strategy.  Serious pain in the corporate communications office.  Ouch.

And credit where it’s due.  The firm’s new mono-print, crystal-clear message to customers is a model.  Dispensing with usual legalese, corporate muzak and CSR harmonies, this is comms writing at its audience-engaging best.   The crisis is, Tesco acknowledges in near-passable blank verse, about more than “burgers and Bolognese… We know that all this will only work if we are/open about what we do…  Seriously/This is it/We are changing.”

Called to comment on BBC 5 Live’s Saturday breakfast show, I doused detached amusement under the 6AM shower and focused.   And… well the horse-meat case offers a compelling new perspective. Here’s why.

Most crises (and crisis texts) have a clear flashpoint or ‘crime’ (fire, oil-spill, hospital infection, sexual misconduct).  They offer a caste of ‘victims’.   Quick wins for politicians, commentators and bloggers alike.  In response, practitioners can deploy admirable models, processes and procedures.   Granted they’re too rarely rehearsed and applied, yet readily available.

But here the only flashpoint is a pub joke.  Lots of murky dealings. But no deaths.  No injuries.  No victims.  And no clear focus for crisis recovery.

So, unusually, the horse-meat case exposes the submerged side of a crisis ‘iceberg’. As a wonderfully-colourful crime-fiction narrative plays out in the headlines, reputational damage accelerates.  Rather like the MPs’ expenses case and the Daily Telegraph’s long, painful exposure, this could run for months and months.  For fake receipts, dodgy home-lettings, gardeners and freshly-cleaned moats, read – maybe – fish, dairy products, vegetables, fruit…

Robust social psychology models, meanwhile, confirm that trust (together with satisfaction – hence Tesco’s action) is a major determinant of all types of stakeholder retention.   Responsibility (the buck stops with Tesco) correlates positively with reputational damage and negatively with purchasing intentions (*).

So the case reminds crisis comms practitioners that, like military planners, they should look beyond prevention/deterrence, mission and securing the immediate target to the long-term exit strategy.  When the lights are off, the noise abated and the tweeting stilled, how do we emerge with our reputation asset intact – even enhanced?  How do we keep CEOs focused on the tough stuff?

Many compliments to that anonymous copywriter.  It is, most certainly, about more than burgers and Bolognese.

(*) Coombs (2012).