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2012 Finalist

Communicating in a crisis...

Communicating in a crisis...

There are some golden rules in crisis communications and one of them is to tell the truth and avoid speculation. What a shame that the German food safety authorities don't appear to have ever read a crisis communication handbook!

The recent E. colioutbreak in Germany has, from a PR point of view at least, appeared to have been handled very badly. First they announced that it was Spanish cucumbers causing the E. coli food poisoning. This sparked a diplomatic row with Spain and led to widespread rejection of not only Spanish cucumbers but all cucumbers, costing thousands of pounds in food waste. That would have been fair enough if it had indeed been Spanish cucumbers to blame. But when the German authorities then announced that, in fact, they had it wrong, and it was actually German bean sprouts that were to blame, you could almost hear the Spanish indignation from here.

That should have been the end of the speculation - you would have thought that they might have learnt from the initial mistake. But no - there were then further announcements...

First..."It isn't bean sprouts after all. We don't actually know what it is..." (public reaction: "Oh, I am ok eating bean sprouts but I better not eat anything else").

Then... "Actually, we think it is the bean sprouts after all." (public reaction: "Oh no, I've been eating bean sprouts because you said they were ok.")

All in all a bit of a communications disaster.

I am sure that the authorities were under huge pressure to say something as the lack of information was undoubtedly causing problems with consumer confidence in food. But to speculate was to lead to even greater confidence issues, as well as creating a damaging credibility gap.

The lesson here is that you need to be very careful what you say in a crisis situation. Yes, you need to communicate and do so quickly and regularly. But you must only communicate about facts and never speculate about what may or may not be happening.

Another lesson in crisis communication is to show that you are sorry for any problems that you have caused. Somehow I think the German authorities might have to say more than a simple "sorry" to the EU - they have had to launch a €210m compensation fund for salad growers who lost money as a result of the alleged problems!

 

Philip 10:09

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