Tainted Horsemeat Turns PR’s “Gallop” to a Slow Trot

Mar 4, 2013

You have to wonder if the corporate executives dealing with Europe’s horsemeat food crisis haven’t just thrown their hands up in sardonic frustration and shouted “it was horsemeat, people, not horse s***!”

Be a dear and pass the Pepto-Bismol please!

IKEA MeatballSeriously, though, it’s cold comfort for the millions of Europeans who’ve been left with an unsettled stomach over the unfolding food scandal. And while there’s been a concerted effort on the part of Burger King, Tesco, Nestlé and others to address the meat recall across the continent – including the suspension of IKEA’s famous Swedish Meatballs – it hasn’t prevented social media from turning the crisis into one of misappropriated humor. There’s also been plenty of finger pointing at the failure of Big Business to protect the quality of the products they distribute, no matter where their third-party processing and distribution operations may be located.

And while that story was souring hearts and stomachs, another communications problem was gathering momentum stateside: the Newspaper Association of America, the New York Times and other newspapers joined The Associated Press in support of its lawsuit against Meltwater, a company that tracks and monitors media stories as related to client needs, but allegedly copies whole article leads and headlines without paying proper licensing fees to the AP.

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Whether Meltwater wins or loses the eventual lawsuit probably doesn’t much matter in the court of public opinion. As a media agency they’ve only furthered the age-old belief that the PR industry is filled with nothing but “hacks and flacks.”

Both stories reminded me of a more encouraging PR Daily article by Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications, named one of PR’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. Her article, How to Think Like a PR Person, articulated some of PR professionals’ most valuable skills. And by doing so, underscored that proper PR executive-think is very similar to the standards journalists hold high. In reality, this is a recipe that also works for corporate execs independent of their communications partners – something the horsemeat industry and Meltwater could learn from and use right now.

Crenshaw’s most relevant points included:

  • Think in sound bites: Talk about food for thought. This isn’t just a good idea for pitching media. It also helps condense one’s thoughts into step-by-step processes, more like an equation. When a company is in crisis mode, as IKEA and others are, this is particularly important.
  • Media training is essential: For similar reasons , media training is also about clarity of thought and preparation for difficult questions – ideal for Twitter and 140-character space restrictions – whether the questions are coming from news outlets or everyday consumers.
  • Voraciously consume media and content: Note, this does not say, “voraciously copy and paste media content.” For PRs pros this boils down to what I call “news aggregation with a point” – embrace the hyperlink, attribute constantly, and draw conclusions from the data used, helping prevent Meltwater-like accusations. (Exactly what this post does) From a corporate standpoint, knowing the news helps put immediate successes or crises in perspective.
  • Look for trends: Trends help connect the proverbial dots and can help draw conclusions from the above news consumption and content. For instance, if I were representing IKEA or another food brand right now, part of my voracious consumption of news would include data on the last time a food recall of this magnitude had occurred in Europe. I’d also be clamoring for positive data showing that incidence of these events has fallen to their lowest level in decades and the number of people taken ill has been negligible. Such trends help blunt the emergency of the immediate.

As I wrote earlier, whether it was horse meat or horse s*** doesn’t much matter to those affected by the tainted products. Hopefully this new week will see PR’s trot return to a gallop as communications and corporate executives consider this advice. Take that from the horse’s mouth and not from its rump!

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