If there could be anything worse than the largest ever recorded outbreak of this severe form of listeriosis globally, it could only be the way it has been communicated.

In fact, from a crisis communications perspective, the killer polony scandal can be used as a case study of how NOT to respond to an unfolding tragedy of such mammoth proportions.

For one, you cannot let the lawyers lead in a crisis. Lawyer up when your PR machine fails to convince people anymore.

I’m keenly aware of the massive impact this outbreak has on a brand’s bottom line, but using an entirely disconnected legal approach lacks the critical empathy a situation like this so desperately needs. An arm’s length, distanced response may well result in the demise of the brand.

Get in front of the crisis immediately. Issue stern recalls and go one step further: Promise to assist anyone who may have been harmed – and then damned well DO IT!

Institute the most rigorous testing and inspection regime possible and call in the experts. This is bigger than your brand. Closing ranks and dealing with it internally is not the way to go.

Oh, and add a dash of honesty while you’re at it.

THE INITIAL FAILED MESSAGE

Tiger Brands, a leading manufacturer of fast-moving consumer goods in South Africa, is now facing a potentially mammoth class action lawsuit after its CEOLawrence MacDougall defiantly refused to take responsibility for the outbreak during a press conference last week.

By flatly denying any direct links between the fatalities and their products, MacDougall categorically stated that Tiger Brands would not apologise unless there was proof of negligence.


Gut punched much? I can’t begin to imagine what the families who lost their loved ones must be feeling.

Whether or not a direct link has been found is not the point here. The issue is that people have died, and that Tiger Brands needs to display at least some modicum of empathy and responsibility. The so-called protocols it allegedly had in place to deal with listeriosis have been found sorely lacking.

The Polokwane factory in question has been reported by the Centre for Enteric Diseases to have inadequate general cleaning, condensation, and ingredient dust in air conditioners and fans – all a fatal breeding ground for the ST6 strain of bacteria.

TIME WASTED

The moment Tiger Brands detected any bacterium – despite protestations that tests had been conducted and that low levels of listeria were found – the organisation should have made a public statement. A press conference almost in tandem with the announcement by the Health Minister seems a little contrived.

The Department of Health also finds itself in the firing line. South Africa has been sitting on a food safety time bomb for more than a year. Surely more could have been done to rope in other stakeholders to assist in the Department’s awareness campaign?

If we are to accept that it is no easy task to strike the right balance in public messaging between averting panic and accurately conveying the extent of the public health risk, we also need to accept the fact that communication failures often have deadly consequences.

Seriously, have we not learnt from the Life Esidimeni crisis?

THE MARGINALISED COMMUNITIES?

The next inevitable part of this unfolding tragedy is the toll it has taken on the marginalised communities. What happens now to the family of four who can only afford R20 for dinner: a Russian, pap and some basic vegetables?

Grassroots communication through Community Liaison Officers – ‘sons of the soil’ – is where effective messaging could have and should have taken place. Town halls, public meetings – call them what you will. It is critical to reach out to communities on platforms that will reach them timeously during an outbreak like this.

Now these impoverished communities will suffer even further. They will need to be educated about their rights as consumers, about inevitable lawsuits for pain and suffering or the loss of a loved one, about current and future medical expenses, and inevitably about loss of income due to physical intestinal tract complications.

CONTEXT IS KING

Let’s put everything into perspective. There has been a national recall of the product from every retail store in South Africa. All production facilities have been halted. Hundreds upon thousands of kilograms of product have been returned to Enterprise and credits need to be passed on. Then there are the transport costs and the fact that a massive number of products are still in storage.

What also cannot be discounted is that the top brass may be facing real jail time.

THE ENDURING LOSS

Even though Enterprise is suffering financial ramifications, that is nothing when compared to its brand reputation. And this brand, to my mind, has been totally decimated.

The question that must be asked is how long it will take Enterprise to convince its customers that their product is safe to consume? Maybe never.

Then let’s consider the knock-on effect on Enterprise’s competitors. I’ve heard people calling in to radio talk shows saying that they will never buy processed meat again. It is truly an enduring loss.

So, to whom does the listeria crisis belong? One guilty company, an industry or our governing bodies?