I wonder what the scene was in Morrisons marketing and comms department this week when they realised a few fish pies had escaped the factory disguised as chicken pies.

Could have been worse, I guess. Could have contained horse meat masquerading as lasagne, for example.

But it’s no laughing matter. The ‘ick’ factor of eating horse mince aside, this is arguably worse. The offending pies contained two common allergens that shoppers might not have expected – fish and mustard. Allergic reactions to both can cause life-threatening difficulties, so Morrison’s couldn’t afford to mess around.

Fairly quickly, they’ve ticked off the first few ‘must-do’ actions in any PR crisis response checklist. Recognise the problem, apologise for it if it’s your fault, and tell people what you’ve already done and what you’re going to do next.

For allergen sufferers, it’s the sort of thing which makes the blood run cold. I have some experience of this, as someone with coeliac disease. Sounds more dramatic than it is, but for the uninitiated, it’s an autoimmune disease which kicks off if you eat gluten. Yes, I’m a gluten free bore. But not in a pretentious hipster way; my insides actually do eat themselves if I eat gluten. If you want to know more, here’s a recent piece about a large study on who should and shouldn’t avoid gluten.

What I fear in cases like this is how you reach absolutely everyone who needs to know. Thankfully for Morrisons, it sounds like the number of pies affected is pretty small. One line I noted was that the supermarket would be contacting allergy sufferer associations, which is a great idea.

But what else should you do if you have a crisis which affected a large number of people; not all of whom will be easy to reach. For example, I’m a reluctant coeliac and while I’m zealous about my avoidance of gluten, I’m thoroughly disinterested in the subject itself. I don’t want to meet other coeliacs to talk about it, or participate in online forums, or engage in any way in the subject. I daresay those with particularly severe symptoms might take a different view; I think I get off quite lightly.

Prepare for the worst

The absolute worst time to get ready for something going wrong is when it’s gone wrong. Sit down and identify the key things which could go wrong. There might be a few; for large retailers there are all manner of things which can constitute a crisis, but food contamination or related issues will be right up there. Plot out how a crisis might develop, and identify what you need to consider as things progress.

Understand your audience

It’s communications 101, but never more important than when the brown stuff hits the fan. Customers, families, emergency services, regulatory authorities… regardless of what game you’re in, you’ll have a number of different audiences and stakeholders who you’ll need to engage, update, involve and inform. Know who they are in advance, and make sure you’ve established lines of communication.

In the Morrisons pie palaver (I’m desperate for a pavlova scandal so I can make the most of that one), reaching everyone is critical. Allergy sufferers groups are great, and the media is an obvious channel for large-scale issues like this. Direct contact with influential social media figures, and sponsoring messages where appropriate, can also provide the right kind of reach to exactly your target audience.

Keep talking

Don’t think that one press statement and an initial flurry of social posts and influencer outreach means you’re out of the woods. Well, you might be. But if it’s a crisis of any scale then it’s unlikely that one pass will do the trick.
Things will develop, events may take unexpected turns for the worse, and it’s up to you to ensure your communications inform the tone of the public discourse. Don’t wait until you’re on the back foot and having to react – keep your stakeholders involved and updated, and they’re less likely to turn on you with criticism.

Review the experience

So everything has calmed down, the phone has stopped going crazy, customers and stakeholders are reassured and the waters are still. Phew. Time to look back at what went well, what went wrong (because it probably will), what you could do better next time, and how you can reduce the likelihood of it happening again.
Need help with planning for the worst? Give us a call or email me on [email protected]

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