Food, Drink & Reputation

The harm to brand reputation for food businesses - as a result of a contamination outbreak, product recall or health and safety concern - will almost certainly mean a loss of custom, and without effective risk management, could prove to be fatal. This risk is heightened for food businesses, not least due to:

Appetite For Information & Choice

Negative information (whether factual or ‘fake news’) has the ever-increasing capability of reaching a vast international audience in seconds through unrelenting 24/7 print, broadcast and social media. The latter has seen a likely irreversible shift on all platforms (including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) to visual communication (imagery, gifs and video) that will influence a consumer’s decision making process like never before. The obvious risk here is of wide-spread dissemination of emotive visuals such as rotten food, public criticism or poor health and safety practices, which leave a lasting impression. Further, in an industry where competition, choice and accessibility (through online food shopping and delivery) is high and already affects brand loyalty, reputation will likely be the deciding factor for consumers.

Food Sector Data Breaches

The GDPR, in force from 25 May 2018, will increase the liability of food businesses that process personal data in the event of data breaches - such as the leak of personal data which occurred in the recent well-publicised case between Morrisons’ supermarket and its staff. This case concerned the online leak of staff data by a rogue employee. Despite the supermarket being cleared of any wrongdoing as to their security measures, it was still considered liable on a vicarious basis for the employee’s actions. The judgment is an indication of the Courts’ willingness to protect privacy even in cases of no direct blame. This trend is likely to continue and food businesses will need to be particularly wary of the data loss risk in the first few months after GDPR implementation when test cases (and the resultant publicity) will be at their highest.

Practical Steps To Managing The Risk

So, how does the food industry protect itself and manage the risks? In our view, the practical steps may be broken down into 4 key areas:

1. Build Your Crisis Team

Food businesses should have a response team ready in the event of a reputation crisis. A fast but measured response will be required and this will only be possible if leadership and decision making roles our known at the outset. Where possible, the team will likely include in-house and specialist external legal counsel, members from the board or management, IT experts and PR agents.

2. Staff Training

The Morrisons case highlighted that a business’s weakest link (despite robust IT security measures being in place) remains its employees. The first step in strengthening this link is the provision of ongoing staff training, which applies in all areas where a threat might appear such as food preparation, customer service, the containment of contaminations, quality control through to handling personal data.

3. Pro-active Public Relations

The most important element of managing a crisis once it happens is by taking control of the public message fast before an alternative message goes viral. This requires a careful PR strategy which will likely involve an early press release aimed at recovering public trust. Given the importance of social media (see above), food businesses should – if they have not done so already – have active accounts on platforms to ensure their messages may reach the right audience.

4. Cleaning Up The On-line Mess

The likelihood will be that negative online material about your business will still exist after the crisis is over. It is important to consider ways through the law relevant to commercial reputation management (such as libel, malicious falsehood and intellectual property) to remove this content; but always in the wider context of how such steps may affect public relations.

5. Review

Finally, it will be sensible to review how a crisis began, and how it was managed. An honest appraisal ought to be carried out involving all members of your response team with the aim of putting measures in place to protect the business from similar risks in the future.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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