Pret a Manger and "broken windows" syndrome


Some time back our house was broken into and when the police came round they explained that there was a pattern to this kind of crime. Thieves who had managed to break into a house often returned. Having identified that it was vulnerable, it became an easy target; that’s why it was so important we made sure we repaired any broken windows now.

 This is equally true for organisations at the centre of a big story. 

The death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse from an allergic reaction to sesame seeds in a Pret a Manger baguette that did not have specific allergen warnings on the label, is a tragedy that has put the company firmly under the spotlight. The details that came out in the inquest were so shocking, her family so dignified in their response and the company’s response so lacking, that it is easy to forget it actually happened in July 2016. So Pret will have known this was coming for more than two years.

Predictably the company now finds every aspect of its business under attack as the media scrambles to find follow-ups to a story that has clearly resonated with readers. As reporters hunted for other victims they uncovered a second case, that of Celia Marsh, a mother of five who died last December after eating a “superveg rainbow flatbread” containing a yoghurt that was supposed to be dairy-free but contained milk.

Then on Tuesday, the Daily Mail splashed with a story claiming that “Pret a Manger's 'fresh' baguettes are made in a French factory and can keep for up to a year” which managed to make the company look both stingy and unpatriotic as well as uncaring.

Unilever too has taken its fair share of flak in recent weeks over plans to move its HQ to the Netherlands prompting a shareholder revolt that forced it to back down. So it is no surprise that it too is now being probed by reporters looking for any weakness and particularly anything that suggests an ulterior motive for proposing the move. 

Today it is reported that chief executive Paul Polman, who was criticised by shareholders for being “disengaged” in the process, is tax resident in Switzerland. It’s not exactly a revelation as he has lived in Switzerland for 20 years but editors will see it as a legitimate story in the context of the row over the move. The unwritten suggestion is that he is either not across the detail of the UK business or would find it more convenient if he didn’t have to spend so much time in the UK (although the company has denied his tax status means he is restricted in the number of days he can work on the UK).

Last year the Guardian and ITV ran an investigation into a chicken processing plant in West Bromwich operated by the 2 Sisters Food Group. Workers were reported to have altered the slaughter date of poultry and also been observed returning chicken that had fallen to the floor to the production line. 

But this wasn’t the first time the Guardian had conducted an undercover investigation into 2 Sisters. Three years earlier it had collaborated with C4 Dispatches on another undercover investigation into the company which revealed factory floors flooded with the guts of chickens and feathers. 

This isn’t just a matter of bad luck. Investigative reporters have to produce justification for the use of subterfuge to their editors to show it is not a fishing expedition and this is obviously easier to do when the company concerned has already been exposed for failings in the past. 

The lesson for all companies is that once you have been exposed to media scrutiny on one aspect of your business, you are very likely to find other weaknesses exposed. The best time to mend the broken windows is before a crisis hits but any time is better than none.

Photo credit: Choilocif

Stephen BevanComment