Forgetting the “PR” in Pret A Manger

by Kara Buffrey

Food retail chain Pret A Manger has been made accountable for a tragic incident that resulted in a 15-year-old girl’s allergy-related death.

The incident occurred in 2016 and it has resurfaced due to the West London Coroner’s Court ruling that the cause of death was directly related to inadequate food labelling from the retailer.

The Coroner’s Court stated that Natasha Ednan-Laperouses “had been reassured by the lack of specific allergen information” on the packaging of the sandwich, later dying of anaphylaxis from a sesame ingredient.

Naturally, the family want answers, or at the very least justice and efforts from Pret A Manger to avoid this awful incident affecting another innocent person. And it is in Pret’s absolute interest to do so in order to protect their reputation, regain trust and guard their market placement as a respected and admired brand. PR-related protection has never been so vital.

“It wasn’t our fault”

However, in response and taking a defensive stance the company has made the point that they were simply abiding by the law. Current British food laws don’t require you to list allergen or ingredient information on freshly made, non-pre-packaged food. Therefore, this is a valid point from Pret, if not cowardly.

The fact of the matter is that this could have happened to any company that packages their food instore. Actually, one of the most shocking things to come out of this is the awareness of the danger that has always been present when making a simple decision such as what sandwich to have.

Despite the misfortune of Pret taking the bullet in this Russian roulette, we must remain mindful that a young girl lost her life, and taking a defensive stance is really going to place the trident in the corporation’s hand.

Complete loss of trust

Finally taking action, Pret released a press release saying:

“The chain will start trialling full ingredient labelling on product packaging from next month and roll it out to all UK outlets as quickly as possible.”

The key word here is ‘trial’. Why is there a need to trial food labelling? Regular, store-bought food packaging has always been required by law to label allergens. It isn’t as if Pret is venturing into the bleak unknown with this movement at all, and quite frankly it shows poor commitment, a lack of sympathy and terrible, terrible PR.

From a business standpoint, let’s take away the tragedy aspect and look at the crisis communications angle… Pret had every opportunity and complete competitive advantage here to take lead on crisis management. They had an opening to turn the disaster around and completely revolutionise the food labelling system, preventing any future incidents. They could even have been one step ahead of government, but failure to act can quickly taint a reputation.

The attack

Following their lacklustre attempt at redemption, Pret felt the wrath. Not only from Nastasha’s parents but from the online community and the press. Twitter was ablaze with furious outbursts.

Several other victims surfaced with stories of their own allergic reactions. One particular article from the Guardian stated that Pret knew of nine other severe reactions, caused by their products, before the death of Natasha.

This was the fuel for the fire as the media continued their onslaught and digging to expose a second allergy-related death that has so far been directed towards Pret. Although still under investigation for a conclusive finger-point; Pret’s response to this has been to go onto the attack and completely blame the supplier, Coyo, for it even threatening legal action. Failure to admit to any kind of responsibility in both instances has completely diminished any semblance of credibility they had left.

From a crisis communication standpoint, their inaction is simply not good enough. An admirable and productive public response from the outset would have at least sated certain media outlets and individuals. Instead, it has transformed into a blood thirsty hunt to uncover all of Pret’s other misdemeanours and deeply intrench the corporation in ongoing legal battles.

Summary

Whilst we can acknowledge that a country-wide rollout of a new process can be costly, time-consuming and inconvenient – it is more than necessary in this case. When Starbucks was penalised for racial prejudice behaviour earlier this year, it closed every one of its US stores for intensive diversity training. That’s right, over 8,000 stores! Pret hasn’t even come close to these kinds of measures and considering that this incident resulted in death, they can certainly feel ashamed.

In the long run, Pret has tarnished their reputation. A lack of efficiency, admittance and responsibility has transformed the once loved, natural, organic, people-orientated company to a dangerous and irresponsible brand with a blatant disregard for human life – not just any human but their customer.

Meanwhile, quivering competitors such as Greggs are left urgently reviewing their systems and saying a sweet, sweet thank you that it wasn’t them this time…