When horseburgers hit the headlines: Lessons in crisis management for suppliers

tesco-value-horse-burgersBy Dominic Cockram

Last week it was discovered that several ‘beef’ products on sale in UK supermarkets contained horse and pig DNA. The story immediately hit the headlines with #horseburger trending on social media within hours as outrage at retailers and terrible puns abounded in equal measure. A recall on the affected products was immediately issued, but the response thereafter has seemed rather like a game of pass the blame.

What can manufacturers and suppliers learn from the #horseburger fallout?

1.     The big brands don’t have your back: Reputation and consumer confidence is the cornerstone of big name brands, and they will have no qualms about turning against suppliers to protect their name. Tesco was proactive in their communications, putting forward an effective spokesperson for interview, responding to complaints on Twitter and taking out a full-page ad in Thursday’s papers with a direct and thoughtful statement apologising to customers. However, their key message was ‘we’re as upset as you are’ read: ‘don’t blame us, it’s the supplier’s fault’.


2.     There’s nowhere to hide: Although suppliers are hidden behind the big brands’ labels on packaging, it was not long before fingers were pointing and they were named in news articles and shamed on social media

3.     Bad news snowballs: If there is a whiff of dirty laundry, a time of crisis is when journalists will catch the scent and air it. Old reports of malpractice at ABP Food Group and Liffey Meats were dragged up in national papers as the media worked hard to identify their ‘villain’


4.     Public perception drives a crisis: Horsemeat won’t kill you, it won’t even give you the trots (ha) but this did not stem public horror that it was to be found in their burgers. Suppliers should have demonstrated the same level of concern as displayed by the general public

5.     Social media is a reality you can’t escape: People will talk about you whether you have a social media presence or not. And if you do have a presence of any kind, people will find it: Liffey Meats’ largely inactive Facebook page became a forum for angry consumers


6.     Listen to the mood: Liffey Meats posted a scanned press release to their Facebook page which contained important information, but delivered it in a blunt and somewhat technocratic tone of voice, saying:

          a.     It wasn’t just us
          b.     It won’t hurt you
          c.     The traces were so tiny they basically don’t count
          d.     It was our supplier’s fault


Clinically stated facts do little to demonstrate the human face behind the company – which is what people look for in times of crisis. Even their instigation of DNA testing at the site as a “precautionary measure only” sounds like a grudging duty imposed on them from above. There is no mention of pork traces, even though their factory is supposedly ‘halal’ – and indeed this is what most of the comments on their Facebook page focus on. Even if not engaging with comments on social media, they should be listened to and inform the communications strategy.

The case of the horseburger highlights the need for suppliers to prepare their crisis management plans. Recalls are a regular occurrence – there were 426 in the UK last year  and all manufacturers, suppliers and retailers should ensure they are capable of dealing with the operational and reputational fall-out that these can cause.

You can read our tips for the perfect crisis communications in our blog post The 8 1/2 Cs of Crisis Communications.

About Dominic Cockram

Founder and MD of Steelhenge. Pioneer of simulation exercises with over 20 years experience in business continuity and crisis management. Dominic is an experienced speaker determined to make the world a more resilient place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s