How an interview from a former boss created a crisis

On our crisis communication courses, we talk to delegates about the importance of understanding their organisation’s vulnerabilities and trying to anticipate what could place it at the centre of a storm.

Accidents, technology failures and natural disaster are things that typically come up, along with a global pandemic on our more recent courses.

One crisis trigger that we are pretty sure no-one has put forward during our training is the idea of an organisation facing a furious backlash over something controversial one of its former leaders has just said in the media.

But that is what happened last week.

Pret A Manger found itself facing furious calls for a boycott on social media after its founder Julian Metcalfe caused outrage by urging the government not to introduce another lockdown to save ‘a few thousand elderly and vulnerable lives’.

He was part of a group of business leaders featured in a Daily Mail article arguing that the UK should not go into a second lockdown. And he put his side of the health versus wealth argument forward particularly bluntly.

He said: “Society will not recover if we do it again to save a few thousand lives of very old or vulnerable people.

“The young people of this country will be paying for this for the next 20 to 30 years. It’s terrible what’s happening. Just because France does this with its socialist government, doesn’t mean we have to.”

Mr Metcalfe founded the high street sandwich chain in 1986, but hasn’t been involved in running it for a decade and sold his remaining stake in the business last year.

But that did not stop people turning their anger on his former business for the crass, dismissive remarks, with comedy writer James Felton and TV critic Toby Earle leading the way.  

So how did Pret respond to being inadvertently placed at the centre of an unpalatable story?

Well, pretty well.

It quickly issued a statement on social media distancing itself from Mr Metcalfe and his remarks.

It said: “We are aware of Julian Metcalfe’s comments this morning, but he has not run the business for over ten years and we do not agree with his opinion.

“We at Pret strongly believe we must take steps to stop the spread of the virus and tackle the new wave of infections.”

In some of the media coverage, a Pret spokesperson created a bit more social distance by confirming that Mr Metcalfe no-longer had any shares in the brand. They were quoted as saying: “Julian does not have any shares in Pret, nor any affiliation with the company, which has been the case for many years now.”

Additionally, its social media team also looked to reply directly to those who had posted concerns about the comments.

A good move, but on our crisis communication training courses we would recommend avoiding copy and pasting the same response repeatedly, which can sound robotic and dreary. Empower your social media managers to put statements into their own words and give them some freedom and flexibility with their responses.

Its quick response did, however, give the brand some control of the story both on social media and as it moved to mainstream media, with most headlines focusing on it “distancing” itself from its founder’s comments.

 

Pret distances itself from founder Julian Metcalfe’s lockdown comments City AM

Pret A Manger distances itself from founder after Covid death comments The National

 

Mr Metcalfe may no longer be involved in Pret, but he is the CEO of grab-and-go sushi chain Itsu. And interestingly it has remained silent on the issue, despite also receiving some boycott calls, presumably hoping that the story quickly goes away.

That is certainly not an approach we would recommend on our crisis communication training courses, but it may just get away with it in this instance thanks to Mr Metcalfe seemingly being more closely associated by the public with Pret and it taking the heat for his remarks.

While one of its former bosses having a ‘Ratner moment’ may not have been something Pret could have anticipated, it did seem to be vigilant and ready to quickly prepare to threats to its reputation wherever they may come from – key components of a good crisis media management.

 

Find out more about planning for a crisis and anticipating your organisation’s vulnerabilities, by downloading our free crisis eBook.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Find out more about our crisis communication and social media training courses.

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