Of all the places to look if we want to see examples of how not to handle publicity, the food sector has to be one of the richest hunting grounds.

It would take most of us but a second to conjure an example of a media-fuelled scandal involving what we eat. Yes, there’s the current gee-gee related shenanigans, but following closely behind, at least for those of a certain age, would be Edwina Curry and her salmonella eggs or John Gummer feeding a beef burger to his four-year-old child in a form of televised BSE Russian Roulette…

Apart from an airline company saying “we don’t really put much store in maintenance schedules” there are few types of business that can vanish more quickly than a food manufacturer found to be wanting in its hygiene standards or ingredients.

There’s no mystery to that, of course. It’s what we eat and, more importantly, it’s what we might be feeding to our kids. You don’t mess around with that (unless you’re the aforementioned government minister), which is why the vast majority of baby food sold in this country is organic – even if we don’t go on to buy organic for our grown up selves.

From the perspective of those interested in public and media relations, this sector provides a plethora of case studies, often falling into the “avoid like the plague” category. There are lessons to be learned here for every business.

Take Findus, those purveyors of crispy pancakes who were reported to be peddling a lasagne in which the meat content was entirely of the type which enjoys a Sunday morning hack…

Cuts in staff following a venture capital buyout, so the story goes, had resulted in very little in the way of media relations expertise being retained at the company. So, when the 100 per cent horse story broke on the front pages of most of the nation’s national newspapers, Findus continued to advertise said lasagne on its website for the next two days and failed to get ahead of the negative publicity.

The kind of reassuring, “we’ve got a grip on this” messages only dribbled out from the company in spits and spots over the course of a week, after it had engaged crisis communications specialists, but by which time untold damage had been done.

Reputation – hard won, easily lost

It’s not that anyone really thinks for a second that there will ever be any more horse in a Findus product. When they say they’re dealing with it, they mean it. Having worked with big food industry brands, I can say that they take every part of their business seriously and I’d be willing to hang my hat on the fact that this was never an attempt to pass off the horse as beef. That kind of conspiracy notion is, frankly, ridiculous.

What has been created, however, is an association with cheap ingredients. No matter how little anyone is paying for their food, they like to kid themselves that it’s not ground-up beaks and trotters being passed-off as chicken and pork. Once that link is made, most people will go elsewhere to kid themselves that a ready meal is perfectly healthy.

Brands live or die on reputation and reputations can be made and lost in a moment, merely by association with something negative. Of course the other moral of this tale is that you might not appreciate what your comms specialists are doing for you until they’re gone…

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