Magazine article Marketing

Into the Meat of Battle

Magazine article Marketing

Into the Meat of Battle

Article excerpt

The furore over BSE has dealt a hammer blow to the UK meat industry. Robert Dwek finds out how successful or ineffective PR agencies have been in handling the crisis

Where have all the meat ads gone? What's happened to all that wonderful, life-affirming copy with clever puns like 'Meat to Live'? And why is it that when we call the biggest PR consultancies in this country, almost every one says that none of their clients have been affected by the BSE scare?

Obviously, the BSE phenomenon is still much too close for comfort and PR folk are keeping their cards very close to their chests.

If they sound so defensive when approached by a relatively sympathetic ear such as Marketing, how much more defensive must they seem to the general public?

We asked PR practitioners: 'In the wake of the BSE scare, what strategies had they adopted and what lessons did they think could be learnt from it?'

CPC (Bovril) replied by fax: "The BSE crisis was handled in the same way as we would handle any other crisis which might affect the company. While we appreciate your interest in our company, we have no further comment to make. We wish you all the best with your article."

Had all the responses been like this, it would have been difficult to take the debate forward. CPC spokeswoman Lisa Newick made a vain attempt to put some meat on the bones: "We don't use UK beef, this is not an issue for us, it's not interesting," she asserted. Not interesting? But Newick could say no more - on direct orders from the managing director.

Asda's somewhat different reaction to the crisis has been praised for it's decisiveness and speed. "The most important thing that struck us was that there was no reassurance for customers. They were being left pretty much in the dark," says Alan Preece, Asda's expansive and relaxed general manager of PR.

"We felt an urgent need to talk to our customers and find out exactly what they were thinking. We got lots of anecdotal information from our stores and discovered that what consumers wanted was clear information on what kind of beef we were selling, whether it was traceable and so forth," he adds.

Asda responded by putting very clear signs in its stores telling customers exactly what was what. Its PR people also decided to advise chief executive Archie Norman to go on Radio 4's Today show. "It was an appropriate forum from which to talk," explains Preece. "We knew Archie could have a very reasonable and rational conversation and his comments would be picked up by other major media outlets, such as ITN."

Asda decided against making the kind of drastic statements other companies were making - about switching their meat supply to other countries or 'guaranteeing' immunity from BSE. "Some of the claims made initially proved hard to substantiate and had to be withdrawn," recalls Preece.

The Asda strategy boiled down to a need to give a strong lead to its customers and a realisation that the government and other official industry bodies couldn't be relied on to reassure anybody. "There's nothing mystical or magical about the process," explains Preece.

"As long as you listen hard to what your customers are saying, it's not hard to know what to do. We tried very hard to find out what mattered to them and then to be constant in our message and say only things that were sustainable and credible. We never made a secret of the fact that we supported the British beef industry and that we believed it had very high standards."

Has it won Asda new customers? "That's impossible for us to say and that's not what motivated us. We took this approach because it fitted in with the Asda philosophy of being straightforward, using common sense and giving people what they want," asserts Preece.

Biss Lancaster's managing director, Isabel Greenwood, sees one of the key lessons to be learned from the BSE affair as "the importance of planning well ahead for all eventualities". …

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