Erisco Foods: How Shoddy PR Weakened a Brand’s ‘Crisis Response’, By Kabir Abdulsalam

Erisco Foods: How Shoddy PR Weakened a Brand’s ‘Crisis Response’

By Kabir Abdulsalam

When a crisis involving a company occurs, there is a strong possibility that you may learn about it through social media today. Social media is often the first battleground for brand crises.

Citizen journalists, armed with smartphones, can break the news and spark outrage before traditional media catch up. This can leave companies and their teams feeling overwhelmed and unprepared.

For public relations professionals to understand this reality, they must have a crisis management plan in place. This plan should emphasize swift response, audience-tailored communication, and a deep understanding of the context surrounding the crisis. Without such preparation, your team and you may find yourselves under attack before you realize it, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the assault.

In this situation, a quick response is essential, especially in an era where social media accelerates reactions within 15–30 minutes. Putting your “audience first” is paramount, as is adapting your speech depending on the platform to understand the people you’re addressing during challenging times.

Understanding the contextual situation of a crisis is crucial to crisis management plans. Deploying an armored vehicle carrier in a situation of protest sends a specific message to your audience. Seemingly harmless posts can ignite firestorms of controversy, as seen in the story of Erisco Foods Limited and their Nagiko Tomato Mix Paste, where a single social media post triggered a PR tsunami, leaving a bitter aftertaste.

Last week, I received a call from a close friend who asked for my view on the issue. He had watched a YouTube video of the chief promoter of Erisco Foods, Eric Umeofia, dismantling and destroying his brand with his own hands and mouth on TV. He expressed concern about a potential market boycott or social media backlash, emphasizing the need for a different approach. This incident prompted me to investigate further.

On September 17 last year, Chioma Egodi Jnr., a social media user, shared her experience with Nagiko on Facebook, expressing surprise at the product’s sweetness and raising concerns about its sugar content. The post attracted over 3,900 comments. In response, the brand’s manufacturers released a press statement and allegedly had Chioma arrested, escalating the situation.

Erisco’s lack of crisis management, evidenced by an ill-advised escalation tactic, resulted in a significant backlash. Their initial reaction, insisting on evidence and implying motives, lacked empathy, escalating the issue further. Erisco failed to understand the potential consequences of their actions and the power of the online food court, leading to a tarnished brand image and shaken trust.

The case study aligns with several principles of crisis communication theory, particularly the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT), which helps analyze and address the Erisco Foods Limited crisis. The theory, developed by Timothy Coombs, SCCT, emphasizes how organizations should respond to crises based on perceived severity and attribution of responsibility.

In the Erisco case, a social media post questioning their product’s sugar content triggered the crisis. Erisco’s response significantly impacted the outcome, highlighting the importance of understanding crisis severity and attributions of responsibility, as outlined by SCCT.

Severity: The initial social media post raised concerns, but Erisco’s response escalated the situation, increasing its severity, according to SCCT. Their failure to address the concerns with empathy and transparency worsened the situation.

Attribution of Responsibility: SCCT highlights how stakeholders assign blame during a crisis. Erisco’s press statement and alleged involvement with authorities shifted responsibility to the company. This, along with the lack of empathy and involvement of law enforcement, contributed to negative attributions and further damaged their reputation.

Response Strategies: SCCT offers guidance on selecting responses based on perceived severity and responsibility. Erisco’s initial response, lacking empathy and transparency, aligned with a defensive strategy. This often backfires, leading to increased scrutiny and negative perceptions.

Empathy and transparency, as emphasized by SCCT’s response strategies, are crucial in PR situations. Erisco’s initial response, lacking these elements, fell into the defensive category, often leading to negative consequences as highlighted in the example. The ideal approach, demonstrated in the case of the unhappy customer, involves building a personal connection.

This is where Erisco’s initial response fell short. By lacking these crucial elements, their communication came across as defensive, ultimately leading to a worsened situation.

In contrast, a more effective PR approach would have involved the PR representative personally reaching out to the customer and offering a sincere apology. While recognizing that mistakes happen, and customers can become frustrated is key to building trust and demonstrating genuine concern.

This apology could have been followed by an invitation to the customer, leveraging her large followers, to participate in a factory tour and create “behind-the-scenes” content showcasing the company’s efforts.

This transparency and engagement opportunity would have allowed the customer to express her experience directly while also offering the company a chance to demonstrate their commitment to quality and customer satisfaction.

In a crisis, a quick but strategic response is crucial. Use social media wisely, tailor messages to the audience, and show empathy. Avoid responding to abusive comments, collaborate internally, and allow breaks for the crisis team during a social media firestorm.

Learn from the mishap: respond with empathy, professionalism, and clear explanations, and prioritize solutions and customer satisfaction.

Erisco has the opportunity to write a new chapter, transforming the bitter aftertaste into a second helping of trust. Effective crisis management strategies, such as prioritizing customer dialogue, transparency, and a commitment to improvement, can rebuild their brand image in the ever-evolving online culinary landscape.

Kabir, is a senior staff writer with PRNigeria, can be reach via: [email protected]