Can Your Company Survive A Horse Meat Scandal? asks Victoria Tomlinson

In the wake of the recent scandals in Europe and around the globe, can we trust any labelling in shops, or recycling scheme? asked this question to Victoria Tomlinson. wrote this article exclusively for us.

Victoria Tomlinson, chief executive, Northern Lights PR – specialising in communications, crisis management and social media in UK and Dubai


The horse meat crisis started in January this year and continues to run.  While horse meat has so far only been found in Europe, the impact has been far-reaching – DNA tests for horse meat are taking place in Dubai and in America, traces have been found in Bird’s Eye ready meals and the ground beef supplied to Taco Bell restaurants.


How will the companies involved in these scandals survive?  What are the lessons to learn for other businesses, large and small?


There are three areas to focus on in a crisis and they are all equally important

  • Dealing with the ‘problem’.  In the case of the horse meat, the actions needed ranged from taking ‘faulty’ products off the shelves immediately to investigating the supply chain and being proactive in checking whether it was a bigger problem than identified
  • Reassuring customers and the public about what was found and communicating openly
  • And perhaps most of all, reassuring employees and giving them a ‘script’ so that they could tell family and friends what was happening – not the classic ‘no-one tells us anything’


1.       Who should communicate to employees in a crisis?

The most important thing in any crisis is to have clear leadership – internally as much as externally.  The chief executive needs to be visible, take responsibility, explain what is happening and what plans there are.

Information also needs to be cascaded through the organisation, through managers.  So ideally each morning, the chief exec would have an early half hour meeting with his or her senior managers who would in turn brief their teams and so on.

Philip Clarke, chief exec of Tesco, produced a video statement to update customers and the public what was happening with the crisis.  Something like this daily on an intranet could be helpful for employees.

Briefings need to be two-way – employees should feed in issues, questions that they are being asked, give their views.  These should go back to senior management as much as communication the other way.

In an organisation which has a well-oiled internal briefing mechanism, this will be relatively easy to implement.  Where communications are not good even in calm time, this will be much harder to implement in a crisis.

2.       Keep briefing – don’t allow silence

Silence is the worst thing in a crisis.  There may not be anything much new to say, but you still need to say that.   In the Tesco case, you can update on things such as: when reports are due, let them know which products have been taken off the shelves, give feedback about what customers are saying and doing.

3.       Be seen to do the right thing

Employees have a very good sense of what the ‘right thing’ to do is.  They know what the ‘man on the street’ is saying. They are a good barometer and guide as to what you are doing, particularly if senior management is remote from the business and your customers.

Set up a small working group of employees who can help to do the right thing – you need those with common sense and who have good judgement to advise you.


How many times do you have a case of a chief executive hanging on to their job when the public, media and employees know they have to go.  When the rest of the world was screaming for Bob Diamond at Barclays to leave, his employees will have known what was needed.  It was just the board that was out of touch.

Every business has crises and employees understand that.  But they need to feel they work for a business that is honourable, honest and doing the right thing.  That means

–          Accepting that something has gone wrong

–          Apologising

–          Putting it right at the company expense

These days bosses should not take large bonuses when clearly they don’t deserve them.

4.       Crises do not have to be disasters

If handled well, a crisis can improve a company’s reputation if they are seen to act quickly and responsibly.

That will also work for employees and keep staff morale high, even through difficult times.

5.       Give employees a script

Part of the reason for frequent communication is not just to address concerns but also give employees the script of what to say when they are asked or challenged about the crisis.  That could be for customers or family and friends in the pub.  All are important.

6.       Learn the lessons

Once the crisis is over, analyse what happened, learn the lessons and update plans for the future.

If the company was at fault in the crisis, make sure that any promises to change are put right and delivered.

Morale can be very high through a crisis, if employees feel proud of their employer and feel they did the ‘right thing’.

A crisis is far easier to handle if there is a crisis communications plan in place that managers and employees can simply dust down and implement.  Having to think and decide what to do means a high chance of losing momentum and letting the crisis take over – not be managed by your business.


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