Hundreds of workers at meat and food processing factories across the UK have tested positive for coronavirus. Working conditions and practices seem to put them at particular risk.
One of those affected is Bakkavor – a FTSE250, £2bn revenue company that you have probably never heard of although you have probably eaten the dips, sauces, ready meals, salads, desserts and pizza that they make for the likes of Tesco, Waitrose, M&S and Sainsbury. Their activity makes a useful example to discuss in media training.
Below is a small selection of the company’s negative national and trade, print and broadcast headlines over the past nine months:
Boss at dessert factory with 72 Coronavirus cases told staff they could lose their jobs for taking sick leave (18 August)
Coronavirus: Cases rise at Newark Bakkavor dessert factory (18 August 2020)
Bakkavor: Spalding factory to close with 500 jobs at risk (6 August)
Bakkavor to close Alresford salad branch with loss of 100 jobs (6 August)
Bakkavor: Hundreds of jobs in balance at food site (8 June 2020)
Fire halts production at Bakkavor UK plant (26 May 2020)
Covid-19 – Bakkavor again under fire after undercover video (14 April 2020)
Manager at major UK food supplier says staff who stay at home may be sacked (9 April 2020)
Bakkavor under fire over sick pay, social distancing (31 March 2020)
Bakkavor strike threatens dip in taramasalata supply (14 November 2019)
And then as rebuttal, these are the only press releases listed on Bakkavor’s website for the whole of 2020:
Proposed Closure of Bakkavor Salads Alresford (5 August)
Bakkavor Group plc Trading Update (12 June)
COVID-19 Response (29 May)
2019 Annual Report and Notice of 2020 Annual General Meeting (6 June)
COVID-19 and Trading Update (2 April)
Bakkavor Group plc – Completion of Refinancing (17 March)
Bakkavor wins Food Management Today’s Best Training Initiative award (12 March)
Full-year Results (27 February)
Pre-Close Trading Statement (16 January)
Sure, there’s a corporate responsibility section and a blog with a few uplifting stories about the company’s people and processes. But if you wanted a sense of how the company values its reputation, it’s not obvious from its press releases that it cares about much except profit.
And you would think that corporate reputation would matter to a food manufacturer. After all, who can forget the horsemeat scandal which cost Tesco in particular millions in lost meat sales and additional costs? Oh. You have, haven’t you? Cadbury’s cover-up of salmonella contamination of its chocolate bars in 2006 that cost it over £20m in fines and costs? Ancient history. The largest product recall in UK history that cost food processors over £100m in 2005 when over 500 products were found to be containing the carcinogenic Sudan 1 red dye? You’re struggling to remember that one at all, aren’t you? But all were front page news for many days.
Maybe the dissonance between the negative headlines and Bakkavor’s apparent sense of itself is misplaced. After all, Tesco and Cadbury are still with us today despite poor handling of the crises that engulfed them. They (like Bakkavor), are not ‘bad companies’; sh*t happens and they deal with it as best they can. But I think that Bakkavor senses it is invisible to the public and so its reputation is not front and centre for the company – except perhaps to corporate customers, investors and the Food Standards Agency.
Like all listed companies, Bakkavor publishes as part of its annual report, an assessment of its principal risks and uncertainties. Its latest 2019 Annual Report identified 15 of them. But only two of them make any mention of reputation and were explicitly linked to any failure to maintain the health and safety of their employees or any breach of trust relating to consumer safety and confidence.
Bakkavor is not unusual in seeing reputational risk solely as a consequence of operational or technical risks. But that underplays the myriad elements that comprise a reputation and the reputational damage that can arise from non-operational issues (for example, the negative publicity surrounding claims of sexual harassment of staff by Ted Baker’s founder and CEO, Ray Kelvin calls into question the judgment and independence of the Board).
I suspect though, that like many business-to-business organisations, it is not that Bakkavor does not especially care about its reputation. It is just that it does not care what the public thinks. Negative headlines and stories with a rebuttal quote at the end of the article (and who reads to the end of an article?!) don’t worry board members too much, as long as they can maintain a direct line of communication to their investors and corporate clients.
But corporate clients are represented by humans too. And they read the headlines. As do the politicians, regulators, NGOs and journalists who are in turn take note of what the public think. As Goldman Sachs discovered a few years back over its corporate culture, pay and bonuses.
And this is why you and me as the ultimate customer of food processors, and Bakkavor itself, should give a flying monkey about those negative headlines and want to hear a better story.