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.