By Ishola Ayodele
In the tumultuous world of crisis management, where swift and well-judged responses can make the difference between recovery and ruin, Erisco Foods, a titan in the Nigerian tomato paste industry, found itself ensnared in a web of controversy when a Facebook influencer, Chioma Egodi, publicly voiced concerns about their Nagiko Tomato Mix product. What should have been an opportunity for dialogue and resolution quickly spiraled into a case study on how not to handle customer complaints.
On October 5, 2023, I had the privilege of addressing the topic, ‘TOMATO TALES: Case Studies on Navigating Today’s Complex Terrain of Customer Complaints,’ in the context of the Erisco Foods Crisis. My perspective, which deviated from the advice of many crisis management experts, posited that Erisco Foods’ response couldn’t have been different, not due to a lack of awareness of best practices, but because their perspective on the situation was fundamentally different. I argued that expecting them to react differently demonstrated a lack of understanding of the dynamics of crisis situations.
On October 12, 2023, Erisco Foods issued another statement reiterating their unwavering stance. See the statement below.
In this press statement titled ‘NAGIKO TOMATO MIX VS ORGANISED SYNDICATE ATTACK’, Erisco Foods strongly contends that Chioma’s inability to furnish essential product details, including the batch number, production specifics, and even the actual can of the product in question, raises substantial doubts regarding the credibility of her claims. Furthermore, they assert that her insinuations suggesting that the company’s products pose a threat to people’s well-being have stirred suspicions of potential ulterior motives against the company or its owner. Erisco Foods firmly denies that Chioma is one of their customers, instead characterizing her as a ringleader within a syndicate purportedly working in collusion to tarnish the company’s reputation on behalf of an alleged importer.
This statement undeniably reaffirms the accuracy of my earlier insights into Erisco’s perspective on the crisis by a full 100%. It fortifies the significant role that their Crisis Creed is playing in shaping their crisis behaviour. The question remains: Why is the company taking such a hard stance on a matter that could have been prevented from becoming a crisis?
This is where my concept of a ‘Crisis Creed’ takes center stage. Indeed, the best predictor of how an organization will behave before, during, or after a crisis is their ‘Crisis Creed.’
Understanding the Crisis Creed:
My concept of ‘Crisis Creed’ is rooted in a three-fold foundation.
First, it draws from a seminal 1991 study conducted by Prof. Firdaus E. Udwadia and Prof. Ian I. Mitroff, esteemed figures in crisis management and academia. Their research illuminated the profound influence of an organization’s corporate ‘mind’ on its behaviour prior, during and after crises.
Second, it is enriched by my extensive hands-on experience in managing crises for over twenty-five years, primarily within the education sector, and offering consulting services to various organizations confronted with crisis situations.
Lastly, it is nurtured by a comprehensive study of numerous crisis case studies, along with a meticulous exploration of the underlying factors that mold the behaviour of crisis actors, whether they find themselves in the role of a victim or a villain.
Crisis Creed Defined:
A ‘Crisis Creed’ is the unwavering set of principles that guides an organization’s thought processes and actions before, during, and after a crisis. It ensures that actions align with an organization’s values and objectives, whether positively or negatively. It is akin to the concept of ‘Center’ described by Professor Stephen Covey in ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ and ‘Disciplined Thought’ as articulated by management guru Jim Collins in ‘Good to Great.’
A crisis creed is not just a document; it’s a philosophy that permeates an organization’s DNA, dictating responses and decisions when the stakes are highest. In the turbulent waters of a crisis, a well-defined crisis creed serves as the guiding star for organizations.
Erisco and Their Unwritten Crisis Creed:
Erisco Foods’ response to the crisis is emblematic of their Crisis Creed, although unspoken. Several core elements of their crisis perspective are evident:
- Evidence and Accusations:
They demanded concrete evidence from the complainant, Chioma, before responding which translate to calling the complainant a liar whereas in this case it is a case of ignorance and miscommunication. Conventional PR approaches often emphasize empathy and swift resolution, Erisco Foods’ focus on evidence is a distinctive aspect of their Crisis Creed whether they realize it or not.
- Protection and Reputation:
Even in the face of a potential crisis, Erisco Foods remained steadfast in defending their brand. They were willing to confront critics aggressively, which deviates from the more conventional approach of addressing grievances with empathy and openness. Erisco Foods’ strong stance reflects their unwavering commitment to protecting their reputation, even at the risk of escalating the crisis and negative public perception.
- Suspicions and Motives:
Their response to Chioma’s allegations reveals a readiness to question the motives of those making accusations against the company. This differs from the conventional approach of assuming good faith and seeking to understand a customer’s perspective with empathy. Erisco Foods’ belief in addressing potential ulterior motives reflects a distinct element of their Crisis Creed which is responsible for their aggressiveness.
Understanding Erisco’s Crisis Creed helps elucidate why they have remained adamant to changing their crisis response strategy despite public outrage and criticism from PR experts. As we analyze this situation, it becomes apparent that the ‘Crisis Creed’ of an organization or individual is the primary determinant of their behavior in the tumultuous terrain of a crisis. It shapes the perspective from which they perceive and address a crisis, often playing a pivotal role in the ultimate outcome.
PR Lessons from this Evolving Crisis:
- Lack of Empathy and Openness:
Without a crisis creed that values empathy and open communication, a company may respond with defensiveness and skepticism. Erisco Foods’ initial reaction, insisting on evidence from the complainant Chioma and implying potential ulterior motives, lacked empathy. This approach escalated the issue as it failed to address the customer’s concerns with a compassionate and open mindset. Stream of studies have shown that empathetic communication during a crisis is positively associated with favourable public attitudes toward the organization.
- Inflexibility in Response:
When a company lacks a flexible crisis creed, it may respond in a rigid, one-size-fits-all manner. Erisco Foods’ unwavering stance and aggressive rebuttal of Chioma’s claims exemplify this. Instead of adjusting their response based on the evolving situation, they adhered to their initial position, which further fueled the controversy. In a 2020 study titled ‘Super-Flexibility in Practice: Insights from a Crisis’ published in the Global Journal of Flexible Systems Management, Communication Scholars Stuart Evans and Homa Bahrami argued that, “Flexibility is intuitively valued as a means of dynamically adapting to uncertainty. Historically, it has been especially prized during times of crisis”
- Failure to Focus on Resolution:
In the absence of a crisis creed that prioritizes problem resolution, a company might become more focused on protecting its reputation and attacking the complainant than addressing the actual issue. One of the four basic principles of successful conflict resolution from the Harvard negotiation project is ‘separating people from the problem’. This principle emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between the individuals involved in a conflict and the actual issues or problems at hand. Thus, the idea behind this principle is to focus on addressing the substantive issues of the conflict rather than allowing personal emotions, biases, or perceptions to exacerbate the dispute. Erisco Foods’ aggressive stance to protect its brand potentially hindered their ability to engage in constructive dialogue with the customer which would have helped them gained useful insight for product improvement as well as an amicable resolution.
- Lack of Transparency:
A crisis creed emphasizing transparency is essential in crisis management. Erisco Foods’ initial response lacked transparency and left room for speculation. This contributed to the issue escalating, as it appeared the company had something to hide. In an article titled ‘Trust and Transparency in Times of Crisis,’ published in the journal of Public Relations society of America in 2020 Heather Bermudez and Aileen Izquierdo asserted that, “Providing transparent, timely information helps companies establish trust with interested parties so they can make decisions in their own best interests.”
- Neglecting Long-Term Reputation:
When an organization doesn’t have a crisis creed that emphasizes the long-term reputation, it may prioritize short-term damage control over the lasting impact on the brand’s image. Erisco Foods’ response was reactive and focused on the immediate situation, with less consideration for the long-term consequences of their aggressive stance. According to Von Grant, the CMO Quantum Identity Group in his piece “Reputation Management in Turbulent Times // How to Effectively Respond to A Crisis”, he assert that, “Research has consistently shown that companies with a history of effectively managing crises and protecting their reputation not only recover faster but also maintain a stronger brand image in the long run.”
In conclusion, the Nagiko Tomato Mix Crisis serves as a compelling case study for PR professionals. Erisco Foods’ crisis response strategy vividly reflects the profound influence of their Crisis Creed, whether this influence is by design or default, with its emphases on evidence, protection, and suspicions.
Studies, including the seminal work by Professors Firdaus E. Udwadia and Ian I. Mitroff, reinforce the pivotal role of an organization’s mindset in crisis behaviour. For PR professionals, comprehending and navigating these core beliefs becomes an essential compass in guiding organizations through crises. It necessitates a delicate balance between safeguarding the brand and upholding a positive public image.
The unfolding narrative of this Erisco Foods’ crisis underscores the timeless wisdom that an organization’s mindset significantly shapes its crisis management approach, ultimately determining the trajectory of the crisis itself.
Ishola, N. Ayodele is a strategic communication expert who specializes in ‘message Engineering’. He helps Organizations, Brands and Leaders Communicate in a way that yields the desired outcome. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or 80877932282.