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The story of the deaths of two people from suspected allergic reactions to products bought from Pret A Manger is both sad and worrying.
The food chain has been the subject of national scrutiny after it was revealed that 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died of a severe allergic reaction in 2016 after eating a Pret baguette which did not list the allergen sesame as an ingredient.
Then over the weekend the food chain saw the media gale intensify when it was revealed that a woman – named today as Celia Marsh - collapsed in December after eating one of its ‘super-veg rainbow flatbreads’, which was sold as dairy-free but contained milk protein.
With its response to Natasha’s death described by commentators as ‘frankly inadequate’, we look at how it has managed the media interest in this latest death.
Pret responded to this weekend’s story by issuing a statement through its corporate Twitter account.
Our statement about today's news. pic.twitter.com/ybG868LojD— Pret (@Pret) October 7, 2018
Here is what we thought of it and what other organisations can learn about crisis media management from it.
The biggest issue with the statement is that it bizarrely puts the victim at the end.
It is not until the third paragraph that we learn that the company’s ‘deepest sympathies’ are with the victim’s family and friends and it stops someway short of an apology.
It said: “Our deepest sympathies are with the family and friends of our customers in this terrible case and we will look to help them in any way we can.”
The victim should have been at the start of this response. It would have shown that the company cares and better-demonstrated concern, compassion and humanity.
It is crucial in any crisis statement that organisations show concern and sympathy for those who have been affected by the incident.
The other thing which really stood out for me about this statement is it reads like a blame game.
The approach seems to have been to deny any responsibility and to lay the blame at the door of Coyo, the company which supplied the dairy-free yogurt.
This descended into a messy public slanging match with the supplier denying it was at fault.
It said the claims made by Pret were ‘unfounded’ and urged all partners concerned to ‘work together’.
It said: “We urge all parties to work together, and not to speculate on the cause of this tragic death which is unknown as far as we are aware and is still being investigated by the coroner’s court.”
It can be very tempting to point fingers in a crisis. But it makes organisations appear defensive and always runs the risk of triggering a confrontation which can give a story fresh impetus.
In a crisis, people want brands to be seen to take responsibility and to be accountable. In this particular case, customers know that it was Pret’s name above the door and its product that was consumed.
Will blaming others really help it to regain consumer trust?
I also can’t understand why the company’s CEO, Clive Schlee, did not put his name on this latest statement.
This would have helped to show that he and the brands cares and that he is leading from the front.
He has put his name to statements about the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperousem, written a blog about the company’s labelling commitment and has been interviewed on TV, so perhaps this was an oversight.
But, in view of the current negative coverage surrounding the company, he should have ensured he was quoted in response to any similar stories. The company, moreover, should have been on heightened alert.
Unattributed statements, or ones that do not contain any quotes, do not carry the same weight or suggest that the leaders are taking responsibility.
Pret has a page on its website entitled ‘doing the right thing’. When it comes to crisis media management, it appears it still has plenty to learn before it gets it right.
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.
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