I landed back in the UK this morning fresh from a two day crisis management workshop with a client in South Africa.  The purpose of the workshop was to ensure that they would be ready to protect the business and its reputation in the event of an incident.  They recognised that there’s simply no time to develop a crisis communication plan or undertake crisis management training when the incident occurs.

Stepping off the plane I logged on to Twitter only to release an avalanche of tweets about horsemeat in Findus’s beef lasagne. The crisis communication response from Findus indicates that it had under-prepared for such a situation and was therefore poorly placed to preserve its reputation.

What are the tell-tale signs that indicate this and how can other businesses learn from them?

1) Poorly presented information on its website

Findus does have a statement about the situation at the bottom of its homepage and on its contact us page.  But it looks as though it has been hastily put there without any thought as to its design or positioning, and it lacks a heading of any kind.

Advice: Consider beforehand how you will use your website to communicate in a crisis and pre-prepare templates to be uploaded in the event of an incident.

2) Inappropriate messages on its website

Findus’s homepage proudly proclaims that it uses “only the best ingredients” and another page exclaims “you can trust us” alongside a picture of a “beef” lasagne. On a normal day, these messages are fine. Today, they look hollow, unprofessional, or even bad taste jokes.

Advice: Review all marketing and promotional activity (including your website) in the light of a crisis and change, cancel or delete anything which is unhelpful to your plight.

3) Inability to communicate with consumers

Findus’s “contact us” page includes a contact form, but unfortunately it is “currently unavailable”. So consumers turn to the telephone helpline, only to receive a recorded message.

Advice: In a crisis, you need to connect directly with your stakeholders and be able to cope with the hundreds or thousands of inquiries which may ensue. Set up channels beforehand which are robust, well-resourced and available for use in the heat of a crisis.

4) Absence from social media

The Findus “contact us” page includes an invitation to “follow us on Twitter”: click on the link and you are taken to @CrispyPancakes1 whose most recent tweet appeared more than two years ago. Many people are tweeting to that address making comments, jokes and asking questions. So far, no one has received a reply. There’s also a link to Facebook, but that does not lead to a Findus page either: some commentators suggest that it has been taken down in light of the crisis. If so, surely that’s the opposite of what they should be doing at a time like this?

Advice: Social media is the melting pot in which crises are brewed. The horsemeat saga is all over Twitter with everyone from government ministers, Chris Evans, comedians and worried consumers all having their say. You must gear up to use social media to communicate latest facts and engage with your stakeholders (don’t forget that journalists are heavy users of Twitter and use the channel to inform many of their articles).

5) Absence of a spokesperson

Driving home this morning I turned on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme to hear that “Findus refused to provide a spokesperson.” As a consequence, an issue which could cause enormous harm to the brand was covered in great detail on an opinion-forming programme without the company having any opportunity to shape that discussion.

Advice: When you are at the heart of a major crisis focused on your business, it almost always makes sense to field a spokesperson: your voice needs to be heard. Invest in crisis media training and ensure that you know who your best spokespeople are and identify at least two deputies in case your first choice is unavailable.

If you manage a food company, one day your products will be contaminated. If you run an airline, one day, one of your planes will crash. If you make cars, one day there will be a safety recall.  And all of these situations are recoverable.

But only if you engage in crisis management planning and training beforehand.