Tackling an undercover reporter
Chicken producers 2 Sisters Group had to respond to allegations made by an undercover reporter
It did not take long for Nick Murray, director of group communications at 2 Sisters Food Group, to realise that an undercover journalist was working in the privately-owned food manufacturers’ West Bromwich factory, but such were the antics of the reporter that the seasoned communications professional was convinced that nothing would come of his efforts.
Murray, who is responsible for all internal and external communications plus investor relations, explains: ‘In my experience, an undercover reporter should be the shadow, like a ghost. Yet this guy made himself known. He asked colleagues if they’d like to do filming with him.
‘There was a comedic nature to it all. He was a Mexican guy living in the UK, who had no track record as a journalist here although he had one in Mexico.
‘We knew well in advance who he was. But my advice was This is not going anywhere. Look at how he is operating? How wrong was I?’
The call from The Guardian came on a Sunday afternoon. The newspaper had ten allegations, for which it wanted responses by 11am on Tuesday. As is the nature of such crises, 2 Sisters Food Group had a company-wide management conference on that Tuesday, that Murray was directing. ‘We didn’t have the bandwidth to respond,’ says Murray. The deadline was extended by one day.
‘We asked for footage and pictures so that we could thoroughly investigate but we got nothing. It was like How do we know how to respond to some of this when we don’t know what you are going to publish? What do you do? An overarching statement or do you respond to each allegation in turn? It was terribly difficult with no real visibility of the allegations.’
Among the more serious allegations levelled at 2 Sisters Food Group last September was that chicken had fallen onto the floor and been put back onto the production line. Another claimed that labels had been changed.
‘We reasonably asked questions like Who picked it up? Where did it happen? When did it happen? If you give us these details, then we can investigate. We can tell you if what you are alleging is true. But you get none of it,’ says Murray.
‘You are left with very little other than top line corporate messaging around how you take this stuff extremely seriously.’ The footage that The Guardian and ITV eventually published revealed to 2 Sisters Food Group, after an extensive internal investigation, that the person who had picked up the chicken from the floor was also the one changing labels.
‘The footage didn’t make much sense,’ observes Murray. ‘If there is one thing I am really proud about is the preparation we did [when we realised an undercover journalist was working at our factory]. We knew within two to three weeks of the journalist arriving that this was happening, even though my instincts were that it wasn’t anything.’
2 Sisters Food Group is the largest supplier of chicken to UK supermarkets, producing almost one third of poultry products eaten in the country. It counts Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Aldi among its biggest clients.
‘All supermarkets had full briefings before the story even broke,’ he adds. ‘We cascaded our communications internally, to customers and to key decision makers. I made sure that the messaging was the same as we were going to tell MPs. We had lots of stuff prepared because, at the end of the day, we didn’t know what they were going to publish.’
Once the story broke, though, 2 Sisters Food Group issued daily and twice daily updates to customers and decision makers, so that all stakeholders were in possession of the company’s position and action it was taking.’
As a food company, 2 Sisters had already scenario planned a food safety issue. ‘We had a definite framework on how to operate in those circumstances, and what the cascade should look like – who spoke to who,’ says Murray.
‘We operate on the basis, like other sectors and industries, that a crisis will happen at some point. We also know that someone will in the future go undercover again.’ 2 Sisters closed its West Bromwich factory, one of 12 poultry sites it operates in the UK, for ‘several weeks’ as it launched an internal investigation, while the staff went through a retraining exercise.
‘We had to show that we had done that,’ he says. ‘And we apologised and were contrite.’
Each of its major clients also announced that they were fully investigating the allegations. While the factory was temporarily closed, their orders were serviced by other sites. ‘We were really fleet of foot in terms of trying to bottom out the allegations and responding,’ says Murray.
He believes that many undercover journalists ‘have an agenda’, with the basic plot of their story in place before they arrive, ‘and all you can do is to try to chip away at their framework, to try to break away what it is that they are trying to present’.
The story led ITV’s News at Ten for three nights, and was extensively covered in The Guardian, but it had minimal pick up from other national news media.
‘It was the top story on ITV for three days, running for ten minutes each programme. You could argue that if you don’t watch television and don’t read The Guardian then you would not be aware of it, but there was obviously leakage in the trade and other media,’ he says.
‘It wasn’t uniform coverage, though, as a lot of other journalists I spoke to said they weren’t touching it. They saw ownership.’
The investigation spawned a parliamentary hearing, where chief executive and founder Ranjit Boporan was questioned by members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. (He has since become president of Boparan Holdings, but Murray is adamant the events are unconnected.)
‘It was an incredibly intense time. We had to deal with select committee enquiries. We had to make sure that we had their answers, and many hours were spent ensuring that everybody was fully briefed,’ says Murray.
‘It is a fantastic challenge, though, to get the best possible outcome when you are under heavy artillery fire. It is a very exhausting period, with late night calls even on Saturdays and Sundays, but that is the nature of the job. Working in the food sector, any time after 3pm on a Friday is a busy time.’
It is now one year on the story breaking and Murray admits that 2 Sisters has ‘done a lot of looking back’. He adds: ‘With the benefit of hindsight, it is only natural to say Oh why didn’t we do that? or We could have done that, but very often when you are in the heat of a battle you must plough a furrow that is based on your instincts and experience.
‘We don’t have a big culture of relying on external consultants, but in the past 12 months we have lent on many of the big PR corporates. It is gratifying when the advice you are getting is aligned to the advice you have recommended to the Board.
‘We recognised that there was only so much we could do in those circumstances. We were faced with someone who philosophically does not like mass-produced food products, and never will, so philosophically we are never going to meet. We will always have to agree to disagree.’
The investigation also had an impact on the company’s employees. ‘If you go to the site, there is a sense of anger and frustration. Their pride has been dented. They do a fantastic job every day and they are angry this has happened,’ says Murray.
Staff turnover figures at the West Bromwich site are among the lowest of 2 Sisters’ 35 factories, and it has some of the company’s longest serving employees. ‘I think it is all very well making a point around food and the food sector, but it is quite a different thing when you are jeopardising the future commercial success of a business and those of its hardworking people.
‘We are very keen to show anyone around our factories to show what a great job our people do, and the pride they have in their work. They feel sullied that this has happened.’
Murray will not be drawn on whether he thinks there was merit in the allegations. ‘As a communicator, you must have confidence that the business you work for is the best it can be, and that how it operates is open and transparent. The only way you can combat allegations is to run the best possible operation that you can. We have a very active and well monitored whistle blowing line.
‘If anyone thinks something unethical is going on, we do investigate,’ he explains. ‘But the important thing to bear in mind is what was the outcome? The Food Standards Agency, the regulator of our industry, praised us for doing great things in terms of transparency and data sharing.
‘There were no official sanctions. This bit of the story is always forgotten. I always say to people Do you remember Russell Hume?’ The Derby-based meat supplier went into administration with the loss of 300 jobs after an unexpected visit from the Food Standards Agency uncovered serious health violations.
‘It went bust. Its management team was interviewed under caution. Its factories were closed at the behest of the FSA. None of that happened at 2 Sisters,’ says Murray. ‘That is really helpful in terms of comparisons