Anthony Hilton: Regulators quiet on BA and Cadbury’s

British Airways and Cadbury have been hit by the worst kind of negative publicity in the past seven days. The airline found itself under investigation by the Office of Fair Trading for alleged collusion – attempted or real – with other airlines over the timing and extent of fuel surcharges.

The chocolate firm, meanwhile, announced a decision to withdraw from the shelves around one million chocolate bars after coming under pressure from the Food Standards Agency surrounding an alleged risk of salmonella.

The first thing that struck me about both cases was the lack of symmetry in the PR. The companies had to make statements to the stock exchange because the news could reasonably be expected to affect their share prices, and having done that, they then had to explain as best they could what they thought was going on. Cadbury at least had the wit to put up one of its top people and explain, with what seemed like complete candour, how the problem had arisen.

The regulators, on the other hand, produced no explanation for their actions. The Food Standards Agency put an alert on its website the day after the news broke that said why it had instigated the recall – possible salmonella contamination – but gave no explanation as to how it had arrived at this decision, nor how strong its evidence was.

In the BA case, the Office of Fair Trading on its website confirmed that an investigation was taking place and warned no assumption should be made that the law had been infringed – but again did not publish this notice until the following day.

Even if both companies are found to be wholly innocent – Cadbury is alleged to have detected the salmonella contamination months before the recall – their reputations have taken a battering. This is why the regulators’ comms response is inadequate. If they are going to take an action that does reputational damage, they ought to be willing to explain the background, so outsiders can form a more informed judgement on the merits of the case. Silence is justified when investigations are secret, but it is different when they are in the public domain.

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