How did Britain’s “Big Four” supermarkets perform on social media during “Horsegate”

By Chris Lee

Four brands dominate the British supermarket sector: Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s and the first two have been heavily embroiled in the on-going horse meat scandal, which first broke on 16 January.

The story has fascinated communications professionals, presenting them with a great opportunity to examine how large brands respond when faced with a product safety crisis. One of those practitioners tracking the story and its impact on the brands in question on social media is Luke Budka, account director at communications agency TopLine Communications.

Using social media monitoring tool Radian6, TopLine measured the horsemeat hysteria on social media over the 30 days after the story broke and then compared and contrasted the social media reactions from the big four.

Horsing around on Twitter

Topline counted 128,729 tweets between 15 January and 15 February with the word ‘horse’ and one of the big four’s names in them. For Budka, this is unsurprising.

“The consumer was appalled and where better to vent your frustration than Twitter?” he told NMK. “[Twitter has] revolutionised the way B2C (business-to-consumer) and B2B (business-to-business) brands interact with their stakeholders. Companies are quickly trying to find their feet in a digital landscape where the rules are changing as fast as the landscape’s evolving – and that’s daily.”

Budka recorded that of the big four, Tesco sent out three horsemeat-related tweets via its media team feed, Asda just one, Sainsbury’s just two via its PR feed, and Morrisons’ PR team issued five horsemeat-related tweets.

“There are some observations worth making,” Budka added. “Firstly, none of them seemed keen to talk about Horsegate on Twitter. Sainsbury’s and Morrisons tested horse meat negative and therefore had an excellent opportunity to hammer this home to a captive audience. Both failed. Between them they have 100,000 followers, yet neither tweeted updates from their official accounts.”

Budka also believes those affected – Tesco and Asda – were also silent. @uktesco and @asda have over 200,000 followers between them, yet ASDA has tweeted once since the story broke from its main account but Tesco has remained silent.

The big four reportedly dominate 75 per cent of the UK supermarket sector. These brands are household names, feeding tens of millions of people in the UK alone and grocery analyst IGD forecasts the market could be worth almost £193 billion in 2017. So, when a scandal hits, it would seem natural to use every means available to them to reassure their customers, Budka argued.

“Yet of the two guilty parties, neither tweeted informative updates from their main accounts. Instead Tesco used its media account @tescomedia (9,917 followers compared to the 68,645 its main account has) to tweet three times, and bar one tweet, ASDA used its customer care account with 406 followers to react to queries, when its main account has 92,944 followers,” he observed.

Crisis communications on Twitter

Crisis communications requires a calm and measured approach, Budka advised.

“Quite often a reactive stance is best, especially if the story is not in the public domain. But Horsegate was out of the barrier stalls and picked up galloping speed quickly,” he said. “In this situation the guilty party can manage the reputational effect a crisis has and protect its bottom line by standing up to the critics, apologising and keeping customers as informed as possible.”

Tesco did take out full page ads in the national press and both Tesco and Asda have statements and updates on their websites, but Budka believes they are not that easy to find for the average consumer.

“Both seem to have overlooked the opportunity to seize the social media initiative and have left their Twitter followers in the dark, while a whirlwind of stories continue to make front page news and are discussed by thousands on the most famous micro-blogging network,” he concluded.

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