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
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
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
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
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