CRISIS MANAGEMENT CAMPAIGN: Gressingham and the art of crisis control

Last November Redgrave Poultry, a subsidiary of Gressingham Foods, breeder of the eponymous ducks, discovered bird flu on one of its farms that reared free-range organic turkeys for the Christmas market.

Redgrave directors William and Geoffrey Buchanan
Redgrave directors William and Geoffrey Buchanan

Campaign: Gressingham Foods bird flu crisis management
Client: Gressingham Foods
PR Team: The Madano Partnership
Timescale: November 2007
Budget: around £20,000

The Madano Partnership was recommended to family-owned Gressingham Foods by one of its clients. The brief was to manage the global media interest in the outbreak, focus reporting on the Redgrave poultry name and protect the Gressingham brand.

To protect the Gressingham Foods and Redgrave Poultry brands from negative association with bird flu. To avoid a loss of customer confidence in the very high quality of its poultry.

Strategy and plan
Having taken the call from Gressingham at 7pm on 12 November, just weeks before Christmas, Madano mobilised its crisis management team. In just a few hours, the team had analysed the handling of a previous bird flu outbreak by Bernard Matthews.

Realising that, at first, Bernard Matthews did not speak to the media, creating a hostile media environment leading to suspicion and negativity, Madano recommended openness, taking ownership and constant media communication. It also agreed that all media comms would come from Redgrave Poultry.

By 11pm the first statement was ready, and the next morning Redgrave directors Geoffrey and William Buchanan appeared at the affected farm to read out a statement. Each session was planned, with the media informed that no questions would be answered. All statements were distributed to the key stakeholders simultaneously.

Inbound media enquiries were all logged and answered individually. Enquiries came from the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Russia, Holland and India. By mobilising a team of senior consultants, each assigned different responsibilities, Madano formulated a clear process and strategy, with an open, helpful response to the media, stakeholders and clients.

Measurement and evaluation
It was vital that media attention remained focused on Redgrave Poultry, rather than Gressingham Foods. By starting a log of document interactions, it was easy to evaluate both the media campaign and the complete stakeholder engagement programme, with bodies such as Defra, Norfolk County Council and Animal Health, as well as clients such as supermarkets, food manufacturers and wholesalers. As a result, the Gressingham name appeared little, if at all, after the first day. Coverage was factual and supportive. Journalists understood that Redgrave took complete ownership of the situation.

Redgrave's clients remained loyal and Gressingham Duck continues to be the UK's benchmark for quality duck. In fact, the debate moved on to discuss that outbreaks of diseases such as bird flu are an unlucky aspect of free-range organic farming. Redgrave's openness and regular communication meant that journalists grew to trust and respect the firm's position and briefing.

On 5 February 2008, BBC Radio 4's Inside Stories programme reviewed the media coverage of the bird flu outbreaks in 2007 and described Redgrave Poultry's response as a textbook example of crisis management.

SECOND OPINION - MIKE REGESTER, founding director of specialist crisis and issues management consultancy Regester Larkin

Most of us will understand that a company suddenly faced with the effects of bird flu may have had little to do with the outbreak themselves. Ill fortune can strike at any time. When it does, the key to protecting corporate and brand reputation is the ability to tell it all, tell it fast and tell it truthfully.

Gressingham Foods and its advisers, The Madano Partnership, looked at how Bernard Matthews had acted around its outbreak the previous February. Negative media coverage around the Bernard Matthews outbreak seemed to stem from 'we're not to blame' messaging rather than messages around public reassurance.

Mike RegesterThis was compounded by the late appearance of Bernard Matthews himself to deliver messages - odd for a brand that depends so much on Matthews' personal touch.

The key to the successful response by Gressingham Foods was its willingness to 'own' the issue from the outset, but to communicate via its subsidiary, Redgrave Poultry. This protected the Gressingham brand, while its proactive communication with, and accessibility to, the media and other stakeholders showed that it was a well-run business.

Offering the Buchanan brothers for broadcast media opportunities, but only on condition they would read out prepared statements and not answer questions, would not amount to 'best practice' crisis communication. Presumably, they were not media trained and this was the safest route to take while still providing the broadcast media with 'talking head' footage.

Gressingham Foods demonstrated that it is a well-run business and had operational plans for dealing with such a risk. It may now be reviewing its crisis communication preparedness by insisting on media training for its potential spokespeople.

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