Businessman Phillip Sibia queues to return meat from the Enterprise Factory store in Germiston, east of Johannesburg. This comes after health authorities said they had traced the world's worst outbreak of listeriosis to Enterprise processed-meat factories in Polokwane and Germiston. Picture: Alaister Russell
Businessman Phillip Sibia queues to return meat from the Enterprise Factory store in Germiston, east of Johannesburg. This comes after health authorities said they had traced the world's worst outbreak of listeriosis to Enterprise processed-meat factories in Polokwane and Germiston. Picture: Alaister Russell

The manner in which Tiger Brands has handled the listeriosis crisis is a classic reputation management fail. As it lurches ever deeper into the crisis, earlier this week the company announced that it had recalled products from its Pretoria facility after Listeria monocytogenes were detected in its Value Added Meat Products (VAMP) brand.

Tiger Brands has made few concessions to accusations that its Enterprise facilities are responsible for the listeriosis outbreak and has instead appeared to be taking the advice of legal counsel. However, even if legal counsel is advising caution with public statements and admissions of guilt, it should not be done at the expense of engagement and open communication with affected stakeholders and the general public, says reputation management specialist Lunice Johnston.

This could – and should – have played out quite differently, says Johnston. “The textbook version of how to manage a crisis effectively remains the oft-cited Tylenol case study from 1982, which also involved loss of life,” points out Johnston. “What set the brand owner, Johnson & Johnson apart, however, is that they sympathised with the families of victims without considering their sympathy to be an admission of guilt. Tylenol focused all their efforts into a ‘forgiveness strategy’ and kept all channels of communication open while the crisis unfolded.”

Pick n Pay adopted a similar strategy in 2003 while dealing with a poison threat in the company’s no name brands. “The retailer’s then chief executive, Sean Summers, engaged with all stakeholders on an ongoing basis and also employed a ‘forgiveness strategy’. As a result of the way the crisis was handled, goodwill in the brand and the company’s share price grew.”

The big take-out:

The key to reputation and crisis management is that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Johnston advises planning for the worst and hoping for the best. “Effective reputation management requires that companies plan for every scenario and have a robust reputation management and crisis communication strategy in place together with risk management and risk mitigation strategies, with clear plans and areas of responsibility in place.”

Tiger Brands, she points out, has never acknowledged the gravity of the problem and mistakenly believed the damage could be contained locally. “Once a crisis breaks, it’s essential to acknowledge it for what it is, categorise the level of severity appropriately, and activate the most suitable plan with the right level of resources to support the activities required to address the challenge adequately.”

She says it’s essential to act quickly – but with the facts. Leaders with the appropriate profile and media experience need to share information on a regular and ongoing basis in order to keep the lines of communication open.

Please sign in or register to comment.