How to prepare your food and drink business for a PR crisis

How to prepare your food and drink business for a PR crisis

By Liz Cartwright, Cartwright Communications

No matter how savvy your business is, sometimes there is no avoiding a crisis and as many operators in the food and drink industry know, they can strike at any time.

Just looking at the past two years, it’s not hard to see how quickly problems can escalate and how even the most longstanding, steadfast firms can be rocked. Cartwright Communications is a Nottingham and Lincoln-based PR agency, specialising in the food and drink sector. Here, managing director Liz Cartwright – also a former journalist – breaks down the important factors for food and drink brands when dealing with a crisis.

Develop a PR crisis team and plan

A foolproof communications plan will become your bible in the event of a crisis and will include identifying risks, examples of statements, key contacts, and protocols. You should have multiple copies, update it regularly and log changes, with the date and initials so you can keep tabs on what has been updated.

It’s essential that you get everyone in your team – particular senior leadership – on board with this plan. Everyone should know it inside out, as well as their own role within it. You should then identify a small crisis team made up of key stakeholders – including legal representation and marketing and PR partners – who will be aware of the full approvals process, to enable quick sign off on statements.

Key spokesperson

It’s good to assign one individual as a primary spokesperson to speak on behalf of the company, and who can be available for media questions in a crisis. They should be media trained and comfortable with journalists, and on broadcast channels – radio and TV.

It’s also good to eventually filter this information through all staff levels, to ensure everyone knows what they need to do should they ever be approached by the media or members of the wider public. This could be store or factory colleagues, distribution and potentially suppliers.

Get the story

When a crisis first emerges, it can be easy to want to rush to put the fire out without checking the details. Firstly, we need to understand the full scope of the situation, so it can be determined whether it is a crisis or not. Remember: something as small as a bad review on Facebook can snowball if left unattended.

Product recalls, workplace issues or a major factory incident are examples of crises in the food and drink sector. Researching around the situation to get as much understanding as possible is imperative to getting the facts as well as showcasing your response to what has happened.

Control the story

When it comes time to respond in the public space, crafting the appropriate response in a timely manner is vital to the narrative staying under your control. Not having all the information or leaving it too late runs the risk of the media developing a story that could leave out important context. Preparing two draft statements is a common tactic – a holding statement until more investigations can be done, and then a second with the added detail.

In the statement, confirm what has happened, define any risks to the public and explain what is being done. Keep it concise, clear, and transparent with the facts. Don’t forget the importance of keeping internal teams and stakeholders in the loop too, preferably before they learn it in the news.

When it comes to journalists, don’t ignore them but equally don’t do an interview or speak off the record before consulting with the crisis plan and team. Get the details of the enquiry, be aware of the deadline and offer to call them back at a reasonable time. Take advice, and don’t delay – the story will run with or without you.

Use your own platforms

While you may be sending a statement out to press, you might also want to consider utilising your own website and social media channels to inform consumers too – particularly if this is where the issue started. Treating this in the same consistent manner that aligns with the crisis plan is essential. It’s important that you don’t hide, hit back or delete a genuine complaint, but use it as an opportunity to demonstrate your brand’s excellent customer service.

Preparing for an interview

In some cases, it might be decided that an interview is the best way for your business to get the correct message across. If this is the route taken, it’s possible to ask for questions beforehand from the journalist – however they can decline. But if they require specific information – dates, times, figures – it’s good to have these to hand.

When it comes to the interview space, whether a phonecall, video call, live or recorded broadcast, ensure the scene is adequately set with no distractions – think children and pets if working from home.

When it comes to tricky questions, keep to the topic and if needed use the bridging technique to come back to the original discussion. Take control by giving full but concise answers and avoid making claims or promises you cannot back up. Be empathic and always prioritise the safety, welfare and health of people involved. Show you care, don’t be defensive, apologise if necessary and make sure you mean it.

Consider how to end the interview, and when it’s over, remain professional and don’t forget about cameras or microphones that may still be recording.

Monitor the situation

Although the crisis may have eased, it is important you keep an eye on social media, track all press clippings and comments on news articles so you still have an idea on what is being said. Be proactive and think about how to rebuild trust, use good news stories and show customers lessons have been learned. Now is the time to review your crisis plan, learn from any mistakes and stay positive.

Feedback

Then it comes time to have an internal meeting amongst the PR crisis team and discuss how the situation was handled – what went well, what didn’t, and what the key learnings are for anything in future. This may be useful in not only dealing with another crisis but potentially preventing them in the first place. It’s also important to keep a record of these incidents, particularly if teams change.

 

Woman with shoulder length brown hair wearing black and white striped top, glasses, at a table

Liz Cartwright,  MD at Cartwright Communications

Liz heads up the team and set up Cartwright Communications in 2006 after working as a journalist for more than 20 years on regional and national newspapers and magazines.

Liz’s PR experience spans a range of sectors including food and drink and hospitality and she has significant crisis communications and internal communications expertise.

Cartwright Comms works with a number of food and FCMG organisations in Lincolnshire and across the country.

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