Crisis communication for Merial

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?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Michael Allison

    I wonder what the problem is for many companies with respect to posting crisis-related information online.

    Is it not seen as influential enough, or maybe it’s seen as spreading the word too widely? But that line of thinking doesn’t make sense in our global mediasphere.

  2. Heather Yaxley

    Neville – I picked up on the lack of an online statement too. I don’t think it is just a crisis communications thing as I often look to check a story by reference to the original release on a corporate site without any success.

    My personal belief is that the process for getting statements online often involves a company’s IT department and that slows down the entire process. Also when companies are using consultancies for support, that’s another layer in getting the okay to upload.

    PR needs to get more control over uploading or at the least ensure they have built a strong relationship with the IT folk who make it happen.

  3. neville

    You’ve got a good point, Heather, re IT departments. Reminds me of a situation in a previous life when publishing any content to the corporate website a) required IT permission (and their doing it), and b) don’t even think about doing anything at the weekend, no matter what.

    Whether something like this applies to Merial, I don’t know (but like you, such a thought did cross my mind).

    I agree, in many companies the process for organizing communication typically will involve different people in different functions. Unless there’s a clear plan with a recognized leader and execution procedure to ensure information is made available when needed, things can take too long.

    Does this apply to Merial? I don’t know. But there was a lengthy gap between the MD reading a prepared statement (on Sunday) and the text of that statement not appearing on the website until well over 12 hours later (on Monday).

    Far too long.

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