Insights Nigel Fairbrass

Bad Seed

The biggest fraud in a competitive field of PR dictums is the one coined by Warren Buffet, who said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

[vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” background_animation=”none” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_column_text]The biggest fraud in a competitive field of PR dictums is the one coined by Warren Buffet, who said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Often invoked by communicators eager to capture the brutal unpredictability of public life, in fact the opposite is almost always true.  Reputations properly built are far more resilient than Buffet would have us believe.


The seeds of most PR disasters are usually sown in management decisions, taken – or ducked – long before trouble strikes.  Whether it’s a product deficiency that goes unrectified, a failure to train staff, a new business line insufficiently understood or a lack of investment in health and safety, organisations which fail to identify and manage long term risk will incur reputational damage.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”726″ img_size=”full” qode_css_animation=”” css=”.vc_custom_1538989926952{margin-top: 32px !important;margin-bottom: 32px !important;}”][vc_column_text]Pret A Manger’s own seeds of destruction have been a case in point this week.

An inquest opened two weeks ago into the tragic death of fifteen year old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who suffered a severe anaphylactic shock after eating a Pret baguette on a flight to Nice.  Her allergic reaction to the sesame seeds baked into the product, which were allegedly mis-labelled, has now been the subject of an unending stream of articles and harrowing interviews with her parents.


Response? As anyone who has handled an inquest will attest, the legal advice to companies giving evidence is typically that you don’t pre-empt your testimony in the media for fear of antagonising the Coroner. But for a company that affects such an engaging humanity in its marketing, rigidly adhering to this approach created a damaging brand dissonance.  When Pret did finally offer a response on the last day of the inquest, it struck a duff note.  In a statement pinned to its Twitter account but absented entirely from its website, the group failed to register the deep sense of anger generated by revelations that up to nine previous warnings about the mis-labelling of its products had potentially been ignored, with devastating consequences. Instead, it’s commitment to ‘…see meaningful change come from this tragedy’ and that ‘we will make sure it does’, looked glib and failed the test of verifiable business change.  The error was compounded by an awkward statement given to broadcast media by Pret CEO Clive Schlee on the steps of the Coroner’s court.  Schlee had laudably attended the inquest in person, but was clearly uncomfortable in front of the cameras and ironically could not convey the empathy which is often a hallmark of his own staff.


Impact?  Pret’s clumsy communication through the inquest is now the subject of much Monday morning quarter-backing, and the company has belatedly announced plans to put allergy labelling directly onto all its products, averting perhaps the immediate crisis.  But the error was made well before last week’s inquest, in failing to recognise the risks associated with its approach to food labelling.  Perhaps complicated by its sale over the summer to new owners JAB, the company also failed to engage adequately with Natasha’s family to understand their concerns and needs.  The personal letter sent by Clive Schlee to the Ednan-Laperouse family in August, two years after the death of their daughter, was woefully late and indicates that the senior leadership team is out of step with the wider company’s values.


Pret will survive. Perhaps even Clive Schlee.  But just as Natasha’s death in hindsight now looks tragically avoidable, so too was this exercise in corporate self-harm.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]