The horsemeat controversy has highlighted how crucial it is for retailers to be ready for the unexpected. Here are nine ways to help ride storms successfully.

“It has been going on furlong enough.” “Shergar and fries.” “What do you want to put on your burger? A fiver each way.” It’s the sort of crisis that brings out the best in British humour.

Of course, the humour overlays a serious crisis that has put food retailers in a spin. 

Human health isn’t at risk, but the idea of swallowing something surprising triggers an in-built survival mechanism that goes back to the stone age. Horse meat is a widely accepted part of the carnivore’s diet in France, but it isn’t here. Here we’re more in tune with Thelwell, Follyfoot and Black Beauty. No wonder the media, politicians and lobbyists have seized on this issue.

For politicians this is a perfect crisis. It generates outrage, yet poses no apparent threat to physical wellbeing. Our elected representatives can dust off their megaphones and be as flamboyantly outraged as they choose. It is an editor’s dream.

Food retail crisis teams have had a hectic week, responding to media, communicating with the public and working with buyers, store staff and producers to rid the shelves of ‘contaminated’ product.

This crisis has a life of its own. It can’t be controlled.  Instead, crisis management teams are acting as horse whisperers, doing all they can to settle a situation down. What is to be done in a crisis like this?  There are several things to consider:

  1. If you’re unprepared you’re in the wrong job. All retailers need a crisis manual. Not a document to refer to slavishly but a vital checklist in a bind. What would you do in the event of fatalities, fire, fraud? Do you have a response ready. Why not?
  2. Know what you want to say and say it before you are asked.  Customers buy confident, decisive action and humility. The big losers in a crisis are the businesses that say nothing. Social media has killed any possibility of weathering a storm. Sentiment has always moved swiftly. Today it moves at light-speed. Customers also buy consistency.  For a multi-site retailer with perhaps thousands of staff, internal communications should be open, frequent and consistent. Internal and external communications are now the same thing.
  3. Prepare for the unknowable. Imagine the haunted expression that breaks on the face of a Paxman interviewee. What would you be horrified to be asked?Second-guessing Britain’s most challenging journalists is vital. Some BBC journalists use the “What’s in it for Mrs Miggins” test for a story. Working out how the fictional everywoman Mrs Miggins might feel about your crisis is an excellent way to prepare quickly.
  4. Have three key messages and repeat. Simplicity and clarity are reassuring.
  5. Stay obsessively close to opinion. If you aren’t looking at Twitter you’re bonkers. It’s as important to crisis management as radar and sonar are in warfare. Getting the tone right is essential. Gauge the mood and set your bearings accordingly. That doesn’t mean apeing the way that the story is reported. It means gearing some of your efforts in that direction.
  6. The first 48 hours used to be crucial. Now it’s the first 12. The days when physical newspapers mattered are largely over. It’s their websites and social networks that change sentiment in minutes. Corporate ships often get holed on the rocks because they are too slow. Getting the tense right is also vital. In your first interaction with the media you must have done several things. Never underestimate the importance of the words “we have already taken the following urgent actions”. It reassures and demonstrates momentum.
  7. Agree an approach and delegate. Yes, coordinate, but don’t do everything by committee. Have trusted lieutenants and allow them to get on with it. Team decisions eat time.
  8. Have an experienced external perspective. An external viewpoint brings nuance and objectivity and can steer you away from assumptive behaviour, jargon and self-interest. Find an advisor you trust and trust them.
  9. There will be an opportunity. When the dust finally settles something good will arise. It’s hard to see at the outset, but it will come.

Not everyone has been a loser from this crisis. I put a call into the Exotic Meat Company yesterday, purveyors of all sorts of meat – from camel to zebra to horse. Sales, Paul Webb said, were up tenfold since the crisis broke and they’d totally sold out of horse meat. 

To paraphrase Mother Superior from The Sound of Music, “When God closes a stable door, somewhere He opens a shop window.”

  • Hamish Thompson is managing director at PR firm Twelve Thirty Eight. Founded in 2007, clients include brands from the retail, technology, manufacturing, financial services and professional services sectors