Bernard Matthews should sack Hill & Knowlton

Check out the interesting narrative Is Bernard Matthews Stuffed?, which tells an fascinating tale of poor boy made good in the turkey tycoon. 

In contrast, the claims to have the first interview with Mr Matthews since the bird flu crisis emerged.  However, this “it’s not my fault” piece feels like the hand of the public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton which is handling media matters.  There is little of the bluff personality we recall from the “bootiful” adverts and Bernard has been keeping a low profile, even pulling out of an engagement at Buckingham Palace to accept the Royal Victorian Order for services to charity on 9 February.

This seems like the wrong strategy – and emphasises why public relations should operate at a senior level within organisations rather than drawing on highly-paid “expert prescribers” when trouble looms.  I say, sack Hill & Knowlton and take responsibility for issues facing the business with strategic in-house public relations.

This is by no means the first crisis to hit the company – the foot-and-mouth outbreak, animal rights protests, the anti-GM lobby, takeover bids, staff cruelty issues, plus Jamie Oliver fighting the Turkey Twizzler – have all been issues confronting the firm.  None has been managed pro-actively and there is little evidence of a learning culture.

Why does the company not appear to recognise the value of strategic public relations?  It could be a legacy of the culture common in companies founded by a strong personality – especially when they’ve been a public face as here.  There appears to have been no attempt over recent years to alter the public perception of the company – people thought Bernard Matthews was still in charge, not realising he is now 77 and no longer running the business on a day to day basis.  

Frankly, although I am originally from Norfolk, I have no love for a business that depends on treating birds and workers in a mass production way.   It doesn’t seem to have recognised the changing food culture in this country and comes over as arrogant – probably believing that with its “command and control” processes, bird flu wasn’t an issue for the company.

Is Bernard Matthews Stuffed? highlights the company has responded to public demand for ever cheaper food – could it be expected to respect animal rights and show social responsibility at the same time?  The public are the drivers of such companies – but now we discover the consequences of wanting birds for a couple of quid, the company’s reputation is holding on by the skin of its turkey neck.

Personally, I feel the company has to be more open.  The Bernard Matthews rags-to-riches story is a good one – and has some strong core values about self-responsibility that could be developed in getting the company out of its current mess.  This is a big company, with some strong British qualities to be proud about:

Bernard Matthews Ltd is a £400m company, Britain’s ninth-biggest food brand (one place behind McVitie’s), with 6,000 employees. It is the biggest turkey producer in Europe (some say in the world), and easily the biggest UK brand in cooked meats. As well as virtually single-handedly creating the UK frozen poultry market, Bernard Matthews is one of the chief financiers of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, for which he was appointed CBE in 1992 and CVO – a personal award of the Queen – in the last honours list. For all that, he is not even included in Who’s Who, and a distinct superciliousness characterises much of the comment about him.

What is required is an entrepreneurial spirit that shows the original sentiment in transforming the meat market, not just in Britain, but globally.  But the current methods are socially problematic today – so it should take a leadership role in the debate and propose solutions.  As a major player in the poulty industry, the company could make a real difference.  Show us the consequences of low-cost turkey and present a better way, that continues to meet the needs of those unable to afford turkeys that are free-range, organic, hand-reared, etc etc. 

Remind us of the inventions – such as “self-basting” Golden Norfolk Turkey – and relaunch a healthier Turkey Dinosaur.  Take the initiative and work with environmental activists to improve the food and animal welfare.  Create a culture of good animal husbandry and improve the working conditions to prevent attracting people who’ve been exposed previously for cruel practices.

Demonstrate the global reach of the company – did you know it exports 1.4 million lambs from New Zealand to Europe, the United States, Japan and the Middle East?  Look to the future – since the company reverted to family ownership, it can control its own destiny more, but this means a clear way forward is required. 

Employ some strong, strategic thinkers who will turn around the company – top to bottom.  Anything less and the firm’s poor reputation and defensive response in shirking blame will ultimately see the end of the turkey tycoon.

Published by

Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

7 thoughts on “Bernard Matthews should sack Hill & Knowlton”

  1. A very interesting post, Heather. I didn’t know the background to all this, viewing it from abroad, so thank you. I, too thought the company was still actively run by BM – like most people, I never stopped to think of his age – and I can see, from your article, how they have become “stuck in the past”.

  2. You are welcome – I didn’t want to just berate the company, but felt there was something interesting from a PR perspective in this crisis. As you say, it is difficult when you become “stuck in the past” – you then need the brave spirit apparent at the start, which is hard to recreate when you are no longer young and hungry for success.

  3. I read an article in a recent Drum edition that said Greenpeace had dumped 3 tonnes of non-GM turkey food on Bernard Matthews doorstep after he said he couldn’t find any to feed his turkeys. It forced him to do a u-turn. Not sure when this happened but shows again how Greeenpeace get big names to change their behaviour. ( Just been reading about Brent Spar in our notes.)

  4. That story was also mentioned in the “Is Bernard Matthews Stuffed?” article. See too: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/contentlookup.cfm?UCIDParam=20001123103139&BannerParam=nav_med and http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/Products/GM/goshopping.cfm?BrandParam=292&ManuParam=89&ProductTypeParam=10

    Remember with Greenpeace and Shell-Brent Spar, that the environmental science was proven subsequently to be on Shell’s side. Interesting at the moment to monitor the situation between Greenpeace and the Japanese whaler. See http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article1406594.ece

  5. Thank you for the links. The whaler story is very interesting indeed. It’s an odd situation where Greenpeace activists tie themselves to the vessel to stop to them leaving port one minute then lend a helping hand to assist it to prevent an oil spill the next – all in the name of environmentalism.

    I wonder if the Japanese have heard of keeping your enemies closer…

    Mind you, I would love to know exactly what the ‘research’ entails that they insist they do with the whales they do kill.

  6. Jill – the concept of keeping your enemies close is drawn from thinking at originated in China – The Art of War by Sun Tzu, being the most famous publication of such strategies. As you can see from the Wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_War – this is common understanding in Japanese business.

    There is quite a lot of “strategic” play in this case, as Greenpeace are obvioulsy adept at managing international media coverage – and the Japanese government rhetoric and position is that Greenpeace is a “terrorist” organisation, hence one not to enter into negotiation with. For them, there is now the issue of “face” involved – I’m sure it will take some third party intermediary to resolve in this case though.

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