ANALYSIS: BSE leads to a foot-in-mouth outbreak

With both the public and the media foaming at the mouth over the latest BSE crisis, confidence in both the Government and the British beef industry has plummeted

With both the public and the media foaming at the mouth over the latest

BSE crisis, confidence in both the Government and the British beef

industry has plummeted

‘A PR disaster’ was how the Observer referred to the Government’s

treatment of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) affair - and

that was back in December 1995, well before last week’s furore which saw

the issue again dominate the media.

It is almost six years since former agriculture minister John Gummer’s

infamous hamburger affair. Now his colleagues health secretary Stephen

Dorrell and agriculture minister Douglas Hogg are caught in a media

barrage sparked by the admission that ‘mad cow’ disease could be

transmitted to people.

The source of the story was the announcement that Government scientists

now suspect a link between BSE and the degenerative brain disorder

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

Since BSE was first identified in cattle in 1986, the Government line

has been that it was most unlikely that BSE had any human health


As other leading academics continued to express their concern, the

Government later refined its message to ‘there is no scientific evidence

of a link between meat-eating and CJD’.

Ten years on the public is really none the wiser. The debate has been

characterised by a series of contradictions, warnings from the meat and

livestock lobby about unnecessary hysteria and complacent reassurance

from the Government. It has failed to quell media blood-lust, consumer

mistrust of meat products or the banning of British beef by other

countries with financially disastrous results.

There is a continuing suspicion that Government inaction is at least

partly the result of pressure from the farmers’ lobby and the

unwillingness of Conservative MPs to upset their rural constituencies.

And following last week’s announcement it was quickly attacked for

failing to offer farmers full compensation between 1986 and 1989,

discouraging the slaughter of infected cattle.

All this is in stark contrast to the Irish approach where by the end of

1993 the state had spent nearly pounds 10 million slaughtering every

animal on farms where BSE was found. The Irish Times described this as

‘the most costly, and perhaps the most cost-effective public relations

exercise ever conducted by the state’, pointing out that it meant the

resumption of lucrative trade with most Arabic countries.

Dorrell’s PR counter-thrust, the day after the story broke last week,

was that it might be necessary to slaughter all 11 million cattle in

Britain. Maybe a case of too little, too late, but this was seen as a

step in the right direction by some crisis management experts.

‘The Government has been guilty of not being seen to take the threat

seriously enough,’ says crisis consultant Michael Bland. ‘Perception is

reality in a crisis like this and people will not be reassured unless

the Government is seen to be open in its approach.’

Michael Regester, of Regester Larkin, believes the crisis is typical of

the Government’s tendency to talk at people rather than to them, and not

thinking through the consequences of its announcements.

‘The potential implications of the disease should have been identified

while it was a specialist trade press issue, rather than waiting until

it hit the national media,’ he says.

The hasty nature of last week’s announcement was highlighted by the

Department of Health’s last-minute decision to pull an emergency pounds

250,000 advertising campaign designed to allay public fears and rely

instead on a free-phone number given out at the press conference.

MAFF senior information officer Paul Hayward defends the Government

position: ‘It’s obviously an emotive subject and our policy has been to

make announcements only when there is something tangible to say.’

However the Government may well be guilty of getting itself into this

Bruno-esque defensive poise, which is why opposition calls of ‘too much

reassurance and too little action’ have struck a chord with the public.

As James Maxwell chief executive of Scope points out, ‘the first rule of

crisis management is to do more than is expected of you’.

Classic crisis management case studies such as Perrier’s 1980s decision

to withdraw all its bottles following the benzine contamination scare or

Johnson & Johnson’s swift re-issue of the Tylenol painkiller with

tamper-proof packaging are good examples of how organisations can

address public concern and bounce back with limited loss of face.

However these may be unfair comparisons to the BSE issue. ‘To suppress

the report would be to magnify the problem, to release it creates

inevitable panic. Nobody should underestimate the complexity of this

issue,’ says public affairs consultant Hugh Colver.

Some believe the Government has handled the short-term crisis well.

Rosemary Brook, president of the IPR, has been consultant to the

National Dairy Council for a long time and has watched the BSE situation

closely. ‘It is not a black and white issue and I feel ministers like Mr

Dorrell have performed well,’ she says.

So what now for the Government? Towards the end of the week it seemed to

be standing well back and implying it was time people made up their own

minds. Colver thinks this is the right strategy. ‘The public is hungry

for information not reassurance,’ he says.

But its inability to be open and distinguish between low risk and no

risk has left the Government with a big credibility gap to overcome.

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