PR professionals: ‘Chartwells' reaction as insufficient as its food parcels’

Chartwells’ reaction to a being called out over its meagre food parcels for vulnerable schoolchildren was defensive, lacked empathy and only “threw fuel onto the fire”.

Examples of Chartwells' food parcels for schoolchildren have flooded social media
Examples of Chartwells' food parcels for schoolchildren have flooded social media

Catering company Chartwells has been widely criticised by communications experts over the way it has handled a backlash over the meagre food parcels it has delivered to children who qualify for the free school meals programme.

In England, 1.4 million schoolchildren are entitled to receive lunch that is subsidised by the government. For many families whose children are schooling from home, this has meant a significant logistical challenge for Chartwells to provide packed lunches where previously the catering company would have served up fresh meals at school.

Parents have posted several photos of Chartwells weekly food parcels for children, which in many photos amount to a loaf of bread, a few pieces of fruit, a small amount of cheese, yoghurt and little else.

Marcus Rashford, who has tirelessly lobbied the Government to continue providing children with free school meals, called out the parcels, as, too, have food writer and anti-poverty activist Jack Monroe, and scores of celebrities and politicians.

Chartwells’ initial response, which tried to clarify the amount they were paid to provide food, before recognising their parcels were insufficient, fuelled a further backlash on social media and among communications professionals.

The Compass Group subsidiary subsequently released two further statements on Twitter late yesterday pledging refunds for cases where food parcels were insufficient, and offering to subsidise breakfast for eligible children as a goodwill gesture.

PRWeek has approached Chartwells' parent company, Compass Group, for further comment.

For many communications professionals, the response was tone-deaf, devoid of empathy, and too little, too late, as the brand had already suffered substantial reputational damage by acting too slow.

Here is a selection of views shared with PRWeek: 

Chartwells' recent fiasco is a masterclass on how to completely screw up communicating with empathy. By failing to put out an initial statement as soon as posts started to go viral on social media, they lost control of the conversation and were unable to get back into the driving seat. Let’s face it, no amount of proactive communications would have been able to fully quell the sheer anger on social media. That said, pushing out a drab statement that lacks any emotional or heartfelt messaging while tackling such an emotional topic was probably not the smartest of moves, and akin to throwing fuel onto the fire. Especially given the content on their own social media channels that showcase the elaborate ingredients and meals they are able to pull together. It shows that while they clearly are capable of doing better, in this instance they’ve chosen not to. They’ve lost control of the narrative that surrounds their brand and, as such, left themselves completely open for criticism and longer-term reputational damage that will likely translate into a financial loss. 

Yusuf Laroussi, Business Director, Another Company

Imagine if Chartwells had used this current crisis as an opportunity to demonstrate their values and demonstrate that they were a business with social purpose at its heart (which quite clearly they are not). Imagine if, instead of scraping together the minimum food packages possible, they had sought to deliver more. That they had gone above and beyond in the national interest, to play their part to help families through this crisis. They would be heroes, kids would be fed, their staff would feel proud, their contracts would be secure.  Pursuing purpose before profit has never made better business sense.

Emily Wallace, co-founder & partner, Inflect Partners

The Chartwells response fails to address the real concern behind the photos shared: that children across the UK are going hungry, and that these boxes were intended as a replacement for the most substantial meal of the day for many of its recipients. Chartwells’ focus on the “extremely short notice” of the contract and the cost of “packaging and distribution” highlight their concerns for their own supply chain and profitability rather than the ultimate aim of the contract, to provide for those in need. A company that provides luxury buffets to private schools insisting on calling these packages “hampers” is tone-deaf. Many of the images shared feature hard cheese or spoonfuls of tuna packaged unhygienically in money bags – barely edible, let alone luxury.

Rachel Besenyei, Head of Growth & Social, BrandContent

The Chartwells story flags yet again that at the end of the Covid era there will be a reckoning for businesses – did you behave well or poorly when the country was in a desperate place? This isn’t a comms issue, per se – though it can certainly trash your reputation. It’s actually about core company values – do you do your best for your customers or service users, going above and beyond, or are you set up to think of yourself first and seek to nickel and dime those you are meant to be serving? If it’s the latter, no amount of good comms will save you from the justified anger that will come your way.

Jonathan Lomax, managing director, Blakeney

There is no empathy or humanity in that statement about the children who are receiving the parcels. Also, the context was not clear. I do feel that the order of the statement is off and seems like the apology for the failure has been hidden rather than made explicit.

Harriet Smallies, internal communications lead, London Borough of Hackney

A public statement was needed sooner, regardless of the clearance hurdles it will have needed to pass. By the time it was released the damage was done. Managing the fallout quickly, and responding to such an emotive topic with a meaningful message, is essential. A glance at social shows many have used the charging list published to calculate how leading supermarkets can offer the products at the same if not better rate. Why not now reach out and work directly with those same supermarkets, who are already supporting the emergency response to the pandemic and can build in their CSR. 

Glenn Sebright, assistant director of communications, London Fire Brigade

To say this is embarrassing would be the greatest understatement of 2021 so far. Firstly, Chartwells took more than six hours after their name was emblazoned across Twitter to issue a response, which given the enormous sensitivities regarding the subject matter is wholly unacceptable and begs the question: what the feck were they doing during that time? Secondly, the statement itself is simply arse about face. It is immediately defensive and lacks any sense of responsibility or sensitivity. Lunging straight in with a ‘Err, time to put you all straight here people’ approach immediately gets one’s back up. It’s dire, and embarrassing both for Chartwells and the individual comms involved. And thirdly, blaming the inadequate size of the food parcels on the “extremely short notice”, followed up with “we are very sorry the quantity has fallen short in this instance” is frankly atrocious. There is NO excuse for robbing the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in society of life-critical supplies – this is the economic reality of the current predicament in which families throughout the UK find themselves.

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director, Clearly

This is a political hot potato, or baked potato if you were one of the unfortunate kit recipients. Decisive action rather than more words is the only credible response.

Andrew Olley, co-founder, Olley Goss

Anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe illustrates what is possible with £20 compared to what Chartwells is accused of delivering; her Twitter thread takes the issue apart

First and foremost, show some humility. Demonstrate even the slightest amount of integrity and backbone. Recognise your mistake and apologise. Your company is meant to be leading the way to ensure some of the most vulnerable in society are fed, yet your press statement immediately goes on the defensive. "For clarity..." – no one is interested in your clarity; your provision has been shown up as substandard, so an apology would have been more appropriate to kick things off. Likewise, the charge may well have been misrepresented, but it isn't the story here. Next, another defensive comment which seems to indicate they have struggled to fulfil their obligations due to the demand. If that is the case, then perhaps they are not the supplier for the job? Turn a negative into a positive; get a brand ambassador or consultant on board. You have been handed a lucrative government contract and have a responsibility to protect some of society's most vulnerable at a time when they need it most. Take your obligations seriously.

Simon Reeves, head of communications, not-for-profit

The Chartwells statement was a good example of how not to handle a crisis. Rather than saying sorry from the get-go, showing empathy and promising to do better, they struck an overtly defensive tone. We all know this is a difficult time for the entire country and by focusing solely on their defence, they forgot to acknowledge the emotional impact of this story. This has made a lot of people angry and Chartwells' reputation with all stakeholders is in tatters.

Leon Emirali, former adviser to Secretary of State and Chief Secretary to the Treasury 

Chartwells’ response falls as woefully short as their food packs. Their response, although it might be factual, doesn’t respond to the emotion that has been stirred. A picture tells and sells this story… a response that includes a sterile table of ingredients does not. To add fuel to the fire, pictures are now circulating of private school meals that are provided by Chartwells as well. Their response should’ve kicked in with immediate acknowledgement of the shortcomings of their packs and that they are working to rectify it now, with a visualisation of the standard they normally hold themselves to. No one cares about logistical nightmares they might be experiencing. You’ve been contracted to do a job and the expectation is delivery with all the necessary contingencies in place. The statement leaves me feeling that they would’ve continued supplying sub-standard packs if the power of Marcus Rashford’s voice had not exposed this.

Annemarie Penderis, managing partner, corporate reputation & B2B, Cirkle

Chartwells' statement is defensive and lacks any level of human response to a very human issue. It's completely disingenuous for them to respond to 'the picture', as opposed to the hundreds shared across social media yesterday. This faceless comment is taken straight from the Government's playbook of accepting zero accountability and did nothing to placate the concern and frustrations of the public. In fact, the comments underneath show how it did quite the opposite.

Hannah Lynch, associate director, Alfred 

This appears to be a classic case of a ‘rogue’ subsidiary. While I expect parent company Compass to be well-equipped to deal with some issues professionally, it appears its subsidiary isn’t. I’m not even sure if it has any comms, as its website is atrocious and isn’t even legal – no cookie policy, T&Cs, privacy policy, contact details etc. I can imagine the Compass corporate affairs team attempting to find out just what Chartwells has been doing and that its relative silence is because it is the Chartwells brand taking the heat rather than it.

Stuart Bruce, PR Futurist and management consultant, Stuart Bruce Associates

The most comprehensive PR critique of Chartwells response goes to Welsh stand-up comedian, author and former PR, Esyllt Sears. Check out her thread:

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