From the start of the crisis, the HPA was wrong-footed. It was defending as ‘proportionate and effective' the actions of its team in just stopping contact with high-risk animals instead of closing the farm when it was clearly neither. Otherwise there would not have been the media storm.
It has of course transpired that it was also suffering from partial information. It now turns out that the HPA was actually in possession of evidence of infection rather earlier than originally stated. This gave the HPA a new dimension to its crisis management handling. And let's be fair. It managed it better.
On Wednesday 16th September, as the HPA high command realised that it knew earlier than stated about infections and thus should have acted differently as a result, the HPA's CEO, Justin McCracken, acted decisively. He claimed credit for having launched an internal investigation into procedures that brought this to light, announced an external independent investigation into the HPA's handling of the outbreak and personally telephoned parents of those children most seriously affected by the E. coli to apologise for delays. It didn't stop headlines about ‘Further Blunders' but it was a step in the right direction. And on Thursday 17th, the HPA closed down Godstone's sister farm, Horton Park, having discovered ‘hygiene defects' (albeit no E.coli). Would that it had been so decisive at the start.
• Sometimes your own organisation is your worst enemy in a crisis, with communications not as fluid as they should be. If you discover this, come clean quickly before a third party does it for you.
Bad week for Godstone Farm manager Richard Oatway
Now call me cynical, but how is Godstone Farm getting away with it?
Sure, closing your farm is not good for business. When it re-opens, I suspect that visitor numbers will be somewhat slow. But while the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has been mauled by the press, the coverage devoted to the farm's actions has been pretty neutral. Nine of the top 20 stories on Google on Wednesday 16th September covered the ‘anguish' of the farm owners as stated in their by now three-day-old press release.
That press release was read out to the waiting press pack at the farm entrance by Richard Oatway, manager of Godstone Farm. He said all the right things (did a PRO write it?). He expressed concern for those affected. He reassured people that safety was their main priority and that they were co-operating fully with the authorities. He aligned himself with the public (‘my own children and grandchildren visit regularly'). We have not seen or heard from him since.
The truth is - and maybe they are desolate at their decision - but despite a growing number of infections, the owners kept the farm open on the basis ‘the HPA hasn't asked us to close it' (so much for the statement that child safety is their ‘main priority'). The media has not challenged the statement made by Oatway that ‘We feel we have done enough, until we know the cause of the problem, then we can go from there'. The Sun newspaper's 16th September storyline ‘Angry parents ... have demanded to know why the HPA took four weeks to shut it down' typifies the coverage.
But perhaps it was Tracy Mock, the mother of the twins who are on kidney dialysis as a result of infection, who spoke best when she asked ‘If the public health authority didn't think it should've been closed, then Godstone Farm should've done it themselves.'
No organisation is too small to suffer a crisis and fall under media scrutiny. You need to plan for it. But sometimes you might get lucky if there is a bigger target for the media to pursue. Either way, the farm will need to move the story on with its customers if it is to reopen successfully.
PRWeek and Electric Airwaves are hosting an event on 4 December looking at how to deal with the media in a crisis. Free places for in-house communicators - email us with your name, title and organisation.