Arun Sudhaman 15 Feb 2013 // 2:37PM GMT
The temptation to fixate on the latest crisis of the week is one that should usually be avoided, given the number of molehills that are turned into mountains by the irradiative effects of social media. That diagnosis does not, however, hold for the unfolding Findus saga. Rather than focus too closely on the equine-influenced scandal, it is worth taking a step back and comparing the brand’s woes to the fortunes of another high-profile media favourite, Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). APP is not an obvious example of enlightened public relations. For too long, the company paid lip service to environmental issues, leading to a powerful Greenpeace campaign that forced many of the company’s biggest clients to flee. Yet, unlikely as it may have once seemed, APP appears to have learned its lessons, at least if its recent pledge to halt deforestation proves credible. And one of the key lessons it learned was that its supply chain had a weighty, some might even say disproportionate, effect on its reputation. APP is not, of course, the first company to find this out. Many Western brands, such as Apple, Adidas and Nike, have suffered from scrutiny of their Asian suppliers. Findus, though, has still seen fit to blame suppliers, as if its own brand name is not on the products that consumers are buying. Indeed, the chronology of events offers a disturbing insight into the food group’s attitude towards not only its supply chain but, by extension, the public at large. To wit, Findus only called for tests once news of suspect produce broke last month, demonstrating a shaky grasp of the provenance of the food it sells. It must, presumably, have been aware that consumers expected its beef products to consist of beef. By failing to meet this basic expectation, and abdicating responsibility to its supply chain, Findus has effectively ensured that its actions are at odds with its words. Or, to put it another way, it failed the critical public relations test long before the crisis exploded into the public consciousness. As Sermelo’s Jonathan Jordan notes in his excellent op-ed, “the sphere of responsibility for any food brand starts in a field somewhere, and many consumers expect the brand owner to know where this is, what the farmers are paid, where the water comes from and what fertilizers are being used.” As Paul Holmes points out in his post earlier today, the crisis should be a wakeup call for companies in the food business and beyond. Smart companies, furthermore, can use this knowledge as a basis for competitive differentiation, better CSR and, ultimately, stronger performance. Findus, it seems clear, is not one of these companies. We will soon find out if APP is. Perhaps this is simply what happens when a company eliminates its in-house PR team. You could argue that Findus’ attitude towards public relations is not just woeful, but potentially negligent. The food industry will, no doubt, point to an escalating spiral of pricing pressure. Yet those pressures exist for every company, not least the paper industry. A couple of years ago, it would have been difficult to envisage this kind of advice, but Findus could do worse than study APP’s efforts as it attempts to haul its reputation back from the brink.