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
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.
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.’
GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS
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.’
LACK OF FORWARD THINKING
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