PUBLIC RELATIONS: Mad cows and English PR men - UK consumers are looking at the risks of BSE and are again adding beef to their shopping baskets. Robert Gray reports on the PR efforts helping to restore public confidence

Of all the public relations crises endured by the last government, there can be few that rival the debacle that surrounded the BSE scare when it spiralled out of control in March 1996.

Of all the public relations crises endured by the last government,

there can be few that rival the debacle that surrounded the BSE scare

when it spiralled out of control in March 1996.

After a decade of stating otherwise, the administration announced that

its scientific advisers believed there might possibly be a link between

BSE and the gruesome human brain condition Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

(CJD) after all.

The about-face precipitated a collapse in confidence in British


Domestic sales plummeted and a worldwide export ban was introduced. For

weeks uncertainty prevailed, fanned by the apparent absence of any

government emergency strategy worthy of the name.

The outlook for the beef industry seemed exceptionally gloomy. Yet, two

years on, UK sales volumes have recovered to a mere 7% or 8% below

pre-1996 levels, even though the export ban remains and BSE keeps

returning to the headlines.

Why is this? Is it simply down to the perversity of the British

consumer, or has the British beef industry worked wonders to allay

public concerns?

To find the answer, one must first look back at those emotionally

charged events of March 1996. As the government dithered, the Meat and

Livestock Commission (MLC) went into crisis mode, immediately hiring Sir

Tim Bell’s PR outfit Lowe Bell with a remit to shore up the reputation

of British beef.

In truth, there was little except fire-fighting that could be done in

the short term, as the media went to town with the hysterical zeal that

typifies health scare stories in this day and age.

’Inevitably, any industry would have been unprepared for the level of

media attention,’ says MLC marketing director Gwyn Howells. ’It went

from being a consumer issue to a political one, and as the consumer

dimension started to diminish the political one grew.’

Amid the clamour from special interest groups and those with a political

axe to grind, it proved difficult for the MLC to make much of a PR


To manage the crisis as best it could, it set up a strategy group

comprising senior MLC figures such as Howells and director-general Colin

Maclean as well as key agencies, including Lowe Bell and advertising

agency BMP DDB.

At first, there was little more that could be done than respond to the

specific questions raised by the government’s announcement. The position

taken was that the link between BSE and CJD had not been proven, that

the British beef industry had improved its hygiene and quality standards

and consequently British beef remained a safe product.

’The MLC has faced an extraordinarily difficult time throughout the BSE

crisis,’ says Brook Wilkinson PR managing director Rosemary Brook, who

numbers the National Dairy Council among her clients. ’I think that

their responses on the whole have been good. Few industries have had

such a long-running and difficult issue to deal with for which there are

no easy answers. I don’t think they were well served by the


In the year from March 1996, the MLC upped its marketing and

communications budget to about pounds 15m and spent another pounds 12m

in the following 12 months.

Rather than throwing money at the problem, the MLC commissioned consumer

research which found that confidence was returning relatively quickly

for prime cuts such as steaks and joints.

Cuts above the rest

However, there remained a mistrust of minces and burgers. A large

section of the public was unsure about exactly which parts of the animal

these products contained.

On learning this, the MLC developed a strategy for introducing a quality

rosette. To carry the rosette, minced beef products had to come from

prime cuts of meat from cattle under 30 months old. Most importantly,

they were guaranteed offal-free.

The launch of the British Meat Quality Standard for Minced Beef in June

1996 was supported by pounds 2m worth of PR and advertising activity. In

the wake of its introduction, beef sales rose by an estimated pounds


The Commission also sought PR capital by using the ongoing debate about

food safety as a platform for its messages, launching its Assured

British Meat quality initiative on the same day as the government

published its White Paper on the Food Standards Agency.

’The MLC was in a very difficult situation and did the best it could,’

says Bill Hamilton, director of public affairs at supermarket chain

Safeway. ’But retailers have also played a fundamental role in

maintaining confidence in British beef.’

Beef sales at Safeway have almost returned to pre-1996 levels, says

Hamilton, and the stores are stocking 100% British beef again, having

reduced the proportion to 85% at the height of the crisis. There has

been a silver lining to the recent upsurge in farmer militancy, adds

Hamilton, in that it has allowed Safeway to discuss its support of the

industry with beef suppliers.

But the head of one PR company with a meat industry client is scathing

of the National Farmers Union (NFU). ’My view of the NFU is that they

were far too soft for too long. It’s only in the past couple of months

that the NFU has been stirred into positive action because of the

grassroots activities of its members.’

The same source claims that the feed companies seem to have escaped

’scot-free’ while farmers have suffered. If this had been the US, he

muses, they would surely be facing the same kind of lawsuits for damages

as the tobacco companies do.

Holding back

The genuine sympathy felt for the farmers’ plight probably discouraged

opponents of the beef industry from seeking to make PR capital out of

the BSE crisis. The Vegetarian Society, for instance, shunned a BSE

angle in favour of running ads showing post-operative stomach cancer

scars (the ads were later censured by the Advertising Standards


More recently, in the wake of the media coverage of the escaped pigs

dubbed the ’Tamworth Two’, the Society tried to subvert National Bacon

Week by sending out thousands of rashers of vegetarian bacon.

As well as retaining Lowe Bell, the MLC has given other PR agencies

specific briefs during the crisis. Scope Ketchum worked to restore

confidence among meat-trade buyers in key European markets; Richmond

Towers is retained to work with the UK catering trade; and Shandwick is

currently working in a political capacity.

’The Labour government is pragmatic,’ says Shandwick director Jon


’Its consumer-driven agenda is upfront and it is not going to do the

meat industry’s bidding. But in that context, it is in listening mood

when it feels it’s getting genuine, constructive suggestions.’

McLeod suggests that there is one silver lining to come out of BSE

making the headlines so frequently: it allows the MLC to put over fairly

technical issues, such as the latest processes and procedures for

hygiene control, to the government and its advisors.

It is to the MLC’s credit that it has managed to get some of its own

messages across rather than just reacting to developments in the BSE


This is reflected in its ads, such as the latest TV campaign depicting

an amorous old couple with the implication that red meat has kept their

love life going, as well as its below-the-line work.

The public decides

Yet the BSE stories keep coming: Jack Cunningham banning

beef-on-the-bone; prosecutions of those serving T-bone steaks; action by

aggrieved farmers; US talkshow host Oprah Winfrey narrowly escaping

legal action in Texas for defaming the state’s beef; scare stories of

BSE entering the water supply.

It might be enough for the MLC to give up the ghost, were it not for one

thing: the reaction of the public. Consumers are judging the risks of

eating beef for themselves, and many are finding them to be minimal,

certainly in comparison with many other activities in which they happily

indulge. For a significant number of the buying public0, the Cunningham

beef-on-the-bone ban goes too far.

’A sector of society out there is saying ’to hell with this’,’ says Ross

Muir, PR managing partner of Ross Muir, whose clients include the Scotch

Quality Beef and Lamb Association, and Guild of Q Butchers. ’There is

still no positive link between BSE and new-variant CJD.’


Judy Larkin, director of Regester Larkin and co-author of Risk Issues

and Crisis Management (Kogan Page)

’Managing risk issues successfully requires a combination of ’fronting

up’ to stakeholders’ concerns, whether real or perceived, and being seen

to take action to address those concerns while continuing to communicate

the genuine benefits associated with the particular product or


’The last government failed on all counts in the beef crisis. It was

slow to respond in identifying and slaughtering sick cows and pursuing

the causes of the outbreak. It was a mistake to pay farmers only half

the market price for infected cattle. Half measures don’t work.

’Public concern about the risk to humans from BSE was consistently

refuted by government spokespeople. While there was no certainty either

way, such confident reassurance was imprudent and subsequently

compounded public cynicism.

’The stunt in 1992 by John Gummer, then agriculture minister, of feeding

a beef burger, unsuccessfully, to his four-year-old daughter in front of

TV cameras now looks ludicrous. The old government was driven by

pressure and panic to make policy decisions on the hoof. Labour’s

beef-on-the-bone ban was a patronising over-reaction.’


John Orme, media director, Countrywide Porter Novelli

’Anticipation is the key to good communications; thinking ahead to how

people will react to what you’re saying. That’s the main ingredient

missing from government communications.

’There is no real evidence of working out ahead how people will react to

a given piece of news. But when communication is done in the private

sector, how people might react is always built into the plan.

’With the government there is communication interruptus all the time,

which means it’s always going to be issues-driven and reactive, the

worst possible position to be in.

’It needs to pursue long-term communication campaigns rather than

relying on press notices. And it needs to build networks so that

relevant organisations know what is going on before press notices are



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