Blog: Cadbury PR disaster

Catherine Sleep | 29 June 2006

As you know, just-food doesn’t usually publish unsolicited contributions, but I thought you might appreciate this essay from Ruth Shearn, managing director of RMS PR, who says business leaders can learn a lot from the recent Cadbury PR disaster…

Bungling Cadbury chiefs have exposed their ignorance of public relations for failing to come clean over one of the biggest business stories of the summer.

In a gargantuan PR disaster Cadbury bosses are under fire for allowing Easter eggs go on sale to children – despite knowing of a possible salmonella risk. It's a salacious story for the media and a foolhardy decision by the management to risk the reputation of an historic much loved company.

Cadbury has enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most cherished brands in the UK for many years. Its sponsorship of the nation's favourite television soap and the decision to continue advertising its products during the Second World War while all its competitors axed theirs proves they know a thing or two about promotion. So what went wrong?

The whole issue highlights how easy it is for a business to slip out of public affection and be turned into a company that is demonised and accused of cover-ups and greed. 

The Birmingham company has already stated that it will change its policies for handling future scares. One of those policies surely has to be the PR function.

The strategy appeared to start well. Despite the nature of the story, the PR team at Cadbury was slick. They provided samples of all the problem products to the media, a hotline was established for retailers and consumers and senior management was available for comment. The products were splashed all over the broadcast, web and print media and the firm was seen to be socially responsible, accepting the financial cost of withdrawal on the chin and being portrayed as, pardon the pun, all round good eggs. 

The confectioner quickly announced that it was taking a million chocolate bars off shop shelves, as they had potentially been exposed to salmonella in January.

Then it all went pear-shaped. It was revealed that the company only informed the Food Standards Agency (FSA) about the scare in June – months after the Easter egg sales peak.

The FSA even weighed unhelpfully in to add that there had been a sharp rise in the number of salmonella cases this year (although there is no suggestion, naturally, that they are linked to Cadbury products…).

The tale has now evolved to the stage where it is being alleged that Cadbury failed to inform food watchdogs about salmonella contamination at one of its factories, despite nine cases of the bacterium being identified over a four-month period. The story goes that the confectionery giant admitted to the potential health hazard only after pressure from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) before withdrawing the million bars of chocolate.

Being accused of a 'cover-up' and coping with headline-hungry MPs camped outside the factory calling for a "full and public explanation" of why it had waited so long to admit to the contamination is bad PR. All this could have all been avoided if the company had managed the process of communication more professionally.

In contrast, the PR for the gleeful FSA has been excellent. By putting the boot into Cadbury it is promoting their own organisation as having teeth, of being a powerful industry regulator and backing public health concerns (after all this is the perfect PR opportunity to piggy-back).

The fact that Cadbury decided not to take any action back in January or report it to the FSA because it thought the amounts of salmonella were "minute" and posed no threat to health is shocking. Any PR professional getting wind of this story at this stage should have sensed alarm and advised management not to sweep it under the carpet.
Cadbury said the withdrawal of its products was "precautionary" and levels of salmonella were "significantly below" those which would cause a health problem. Any organisation that discovers minute traces of any poison, toxin or harmful bacteria should be communicated properly to customers and stakeholders. In the eyes of the media – and the public – a minute trace of salmonella is just too much. Look what happened to Edwina Currie.

In a nutshell, the PR plan was too little too late for Cadburys. The day it discovered salmonella in its chocolate in January it should have set the PR wheels in motion. There would still have been time to solve the problem and ramp up the positive PR for the Easter egg sales.

Businesses need to be switched on in this media savvy world. The public hates nothing more than a food company that fails to look after the health interests of its loyal customers.

So, what do YOU think? Do you think this commentary is absolutely spot-on or unduly harsh? Could it happen to anyone? To share your views, just use the 'comment' link below.


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