COMMENT: Editorial; BSE dithering is sheer madness

This week’s beef crisis has largely been a result of the Government’s failure to recognise the PR consequences of its actions - and inaction. A failure so obvious that it almost insults the intelligence of a professional PR audience to describe it here.

This week’s beef crisis has largely been a result of the Government’s

failure to recognise the PR consequences of its actions - and inaction.

A failure so obvious that it almost insults the intelligence of a

professional PR audience to describe it here.



The first mistake was to drop the bombshell about a possible link

between BSE and CJD with no plan of action to deal with it. It sparked

an uproar which ministerial reassurances could not dampen down. The

Government dithered while the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory

Committee considered its verdict. Meanwhile, speculation and fear

escalated.



The second mistake was to pass the buck to the experts. After what

happened to Edwina Currie over salmonella, ministers are wary of

overreacting to health scares. Hence health secretary Stephen Dorrell

repeated his mantra that decisions about BSE should only be based on

scientific evidence. But science does not always have the answers needed

to deal with a crisis of public confidence.



In invoking science, the Government hoped for a categorical statement to

calm public fears. What it got was vague and equivocal, because the data

available is inadequate. The best the SEAC could come up with is that

the risks are ‘extremely small’. This could mean anything. A one-in-100

chance of winning the Derby could be described as ‘extremely small’,

while a one-in-100 chance of catching a fatal disease sounds worryingly

high.



The third mistake was to misjudge the response of consumers. People do

not always react rationally to ‘scientific evidence’. If they did, no

-one would ever buy a lottery ticket.



McDonald’s understands this. That’s why it wasted no time in taking

action to ban British beef. Its rivals soon followed suit. It was

classic crisis management - adopting a ‘better safe than sorry’ policy.

The Government failed to understand this basic business principle. In a

crisis situation, the perceptions of consumers are reality. The

scientific evidence matters not a jot if people choose not to buy the

product.



Now it seems as if a combination of public fear and European pressure

will bounce the Government into taking action after all. But the harm

done to the beef industry by the Government’s handling of the BSE scare

is far greater than if it had swiftly introduced a cull and compensation

exercise.



In the long run, the scientists may prove that the risks posed by BSE

were negligible. But it will be too late. Public confidence in British

beef has been severely damaged. Public confidence in the Government has

been shattered.



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