News that’s been dominating TV and radio in the UK all weekend concerns the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease at a farm near Guildford in Surrey.
Media reports say that the outbreak came from a government research facility nearby. That facility also includes an anti-virus laboratory owned by the private pharmaceutical company Merial Animal Health, a joint venture between Merck & Co and sanofi-aventis.
Investigations are underway so it’s too early to say conclusively how the outbreak happened and precisely what the cause was. Naturally the media are speculating.
I watched the BBC News 24 report at 7pm UK time during which Merial’s managing director David Biland read a prepared statement to the gathered media.
I thought he was a credible bearer of difficult news, presenting his company’s point of view in a calm and effective manner. He said he would not take any questions and he didn’t. As journalists here are so polite, very few asked questions anyway, so no outbreak of shrieked questions that you see on US TV all the time.
Merial is unquestionably under a massive spotlight as this event brings up raw memories of the disastrous events of 2001 which saw thousands of livestock slaughtered and thousands of farmers ruined.
I’d imagine that the communicators at Merial have a plan for just such an eventuality, ie, what if the worst happened, a virus bypassed all the biosecurity, escaped into the wild and it came from our facility? (Let me quickly add that no one knows yet if it actually did.)
Given the statement the MD read out, I’m a bit surprised not to see the text of that announcement in the press room on the company’s website. Indeed, there’s no reference at all to this fast-moving story anywhere on the website. Neither is there at either of Merial’s parent companies.
One thing I’ll say for the government is that their communication is plenty and frequent. The Defra site has detailed information that’s updated frequently.
From a communication point of view, this event surely qualifies as a crisis for Merial. In an information vacuum, others will fill that with their own speculatory commentary until, before you know it, that’s what becomes the common currency of events.
Refutable, undoubtedly, but why refute opinion when you can shape opinion?