Dissident Spin Doctor: When polony spin-doctoring gets lethal
by Emma King (@EmmainSA) When you work in the PR or corporate communications industry, you don’t see a brand crisis like other people do. You don’t wonder if your dicky stomach means you’re dying of listeriosis or where you can drop your polony off for a refund; instead, you get fascinated by the little things that are done well — or not — by the brands in managing the crisis and, often times, feel just that little bit thankful it’s not you up there in the firing line.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have much sympathy for Tiger Brands. At the time of writing this, there is a fair amount of confusion in terms of who knew what and when they knew it and, if Tiger Brands is to be believed, if it is even to blame for the biggest listeriosis outbreak on record anywhere.
Some things can’t be denied
Investigations will be done, the details will be confirmed, and people will be blamed. But, even at this stage, there are some things that can’t be denied. People have gotten sick, and people have died, while corporates have seemingly carried on with business as usual instead of acting fast and decisively.
And these people are some of the most vulnerable in our society — children, the elderly, the sickly, the pregnant — as well as those more widely impacted (small businesses which have sold stock that they now need to replace or refund, for example).
Whatever the outcome is, and whether Tiger Brands is found to be responsible for the outbreak or not, its clinical responses have come across as uncaring and cold. And when people’s lives are lost (again, those of the most vulnerable in society), this can’t but harm the business in the long term.
At times like these, it’s always helpful to think back to the golden rules of crisis management and communications:
Act quickly and decisively
According to allegations, Tiger Brands first became aware that its products were contaminated on 14 February 2018 but didn’t react until the health minister announced on 4 March 2018 that its products were the source of the outbreak. As well as this, the minister first stated at the beginning of December last year that the bacteria likely originated in “a food product that is widely distributed and consumed by people across all socio economic groups” and, on 4 January 2018, said that it was likely to be “a single widely consumed food product or multiple food products produced at a single facility.”
One may go back and forth as much as one likes on dates and who knew what when but the fact of the matter is that as soon as processed meat was flagged as potential issue, one would assume that this would raise concern and a crisis-mitigation plan would be created to be implemented at the business — whether its specific products were involved or not.
The statements issued to date from Tiger Brands have avoided taking any responsibility. There is no doubt that it is leaning heavily on its lawyers and proceeding with carefully worded statements: non-committal and sticking instead strictly to facts without committing to any responsibility.
One the one hand, this is wise, as it’s likely that it will be facing a class-action lawsuit or two in the near future. On the other hand, if there is any inkling of truth to the allegations, it needs to take responsibility — and fast.
Apologise and fix the problem
People are surprisingly forgiving when someone makes a mistake (perhaps debatable in this case, where lives have been lost). But only when someone takes responsibility, apologises and then demonstrates what is being done to fix it.
The big brand fails in time of crisis are often not because of what the business did but how they managed it. A case in point that I always remember is the huge BP oil spill in in 2010. Its CEO was pictured during this time looking happy and relaxed on a yacht (ironically in sparkling clean sea water) while, on the other side of world, thousands of litres of oil spewed into the water of the Gulf of Mexico.
Show some humanity
The lawyers will always err on the side of caution but there is little to be lost in showing some humanity. Tiger Brands has been quick to issue statements that debate what strain of the bacteria has been found or not, and denying links to its products — but not to recognise the impact this has had on people, families and livelihoods.
Let’s remember it all again:
- Small traders living on the breadline have suffered a debilitating loss of business.
- People have gotten sick.
- People have died.
Whether Tiger Brands is found to be at fault or not in the long run, this is not something that should be spin-doctored away.
Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.
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