What was little more than a photo opportunity has led to a considerable consumer backlash and social media storm for one company.
In fact, with people threatening to boycott its products, some have described this as another ‘Ratner moment’ – a reference to the infamous gaffe which wiped £500 million from Gerald Ratner’s jewellery business.
It happened when Tory leadership favourite Boris Johnson visited a family owned sausage company in North Yorkshire last week.
The politician was photographed making and packing sausages at the Heck factory and was shown holding two packs of ‘Boris Bangers’ which had been made in his honour.
But these pictures left an unpleasant taste for many who felt the pictures implied support for Mr Johnson, and they have been using the #BoycottHeck hashtag on Twitter to show their displeasure.
The company – which has previously warned of the ‘cataclysmic’ impact Brexit could have - was accused of resorting to a cheap publicity stunt, misjudging its customer base, and of having a political bias. And there have been numerous posts from consumers vowing not to buy its products again.
I no longer will buy any Heck products again now that I know your company support stripping British citizens of our #FreedomofMovement rights and that you support this devastating Tory #Brexit #BoycottHeck— JK (@JKLDNMAD) July 8, 2019
Heck Sausages, marketing brought to you by the Gerald Rattner school of PR and promotion— GFAI (@GailFairman) July 8, 2019
Sorry, I will not buy my food from a company that not only endorses Johnson but thinks about renaming their product Boris Bangers #BoycottHeck— Peter Sturdgess #FBPE (@petersturdgess) July 8, 2019
The backlash has also been picked up by the mainstream media:
#BoycottHeck: Sausage firm faces backlash after being visited by Boris Johnson Sky News
Calls to boycott Heck sausages over Boris Johnson themed bangers Metro
A heck of a row! ‘Snowflake’ Remainers threaten to Boycott sausage makers Daily Mail
And, the company’s Google review ranking has also been hit by a series of negative reviews.
So, how has the sausage company responded to the storm?
In a word, slowly. While the company’s reputation was being fried on social media, it remained silent for several days. This completely ignores one of the fundamental rules of crisis media management – the need to move quickly.
When it did break its silence, its response was posted in a tweet which began with “we’ve seen a lot of people talking about a visit to our factory last week” – that in itself leads to questions about why it failed to respond sooner.
The statement itself took the form of a muddled, rambling response which did little to halt the backlash aimed at the brand.
We’ve seen a lot of people talking about a visit to our factory last week, and we want to make ourselves completely understood. Team HECK x pic.twitter.com/ILx5iutunv— HECK! (@HeckFood) July 8, 2019
So, what can we learn from this?
The key lesson is that in the current climate there is a lot of risk for companies that become involved in politics.
We’ve all seen politicians on these sorts of photo opportunities before, but times have changed and British politics is more divided than ever. Those who don’t agree with a politician are going to see any visit to a company as an endorsement, particularly when it includes personalised products.
For full clarity, @HeckFood would like to make themselves 'completely understood'. They do not endorse any candidate. They just made a pack of product with Johnson's name on it, and then let him prance around their kitchen for the cameras. I trust everyone's clear on that. https://t.co/9vwaBFOeYA— Jay Rayner (@jayrayner1) July 8, 2019
If a company does become involved in politics, it must be prepared for the inevitable backlash from those who do not agree. This means being able to respond quickly with a clear message.
And any move into the political debate needs to be consistent with the brand’s values and messaging. One of the stand out part of this incident was that a company which had previously warned about the impact of Brexit, and which has a workforce which is 50 percent Eastern European, brought out the bunting for one of the key architects of that referendum result.
So, will this be another Ratner moment that will go down in crisis media management folklore?
Time will ultimately tell just how damaging this PR stunt has been.
But it is worth pointing out that while the overall social media sentiment has been the ‘wurst’, the company does seem to have won some new customers.
Thanks to the deranged #BoycottHeck campaign, have now heard of the company and discovered that @HeckFood do gluten free sausages. Now stockpiling #Hecksausages for a tastier no deal gluten free Brexit.— Iain Martin (@iainmartin1) July 8, 2019
While some doubt that those sharing their outrage on social media were Heck customers in the first place.
Nothing better typifies the political onanism of Twitter than the ridiculous #BoycottHeck campaign.— Stephen Pollard (@stephenpollard) July 8, 2019
People who have never and would never have bought anything from Heck are simply ensuring the rest of us go out of our way to #BuyHeck
Left-wing, keyboard warriors who are currently trying to undermine @HeckFood are fooling nobody. None of these losers have previously bought their products & their threats should be taken with a pinch of salt (along with the sausages) I predict an upsurge in HECK! sausage sales https://t.co/H2eFL7Gn6H— Nigel Adams MP (@nadams) July 8, 2019
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