how Nestlé manages its communication in the face of the contaminated pizza scandal

11:30 a.m., May 15, 2022

“The very strong emotion aroused by the Buitoni affair upsets all the employees of the group and the judicial information opened on Thursday forces us to exercise the greatest reserve. A speech would be premature. » Pierre-Alexandre Teulié, head of public affairs at Nestlé France, is sorry. But in his eyes, their voice today is inaudible. As most often when a crisis hits the world leader in food. For the Swiss giant with 83 billion euros in turnover, which weaves its global web in 187 countries from Vevey, Switzerland, silence is always golden.

Read also – Contaminated Buitoni pizzas: how the case highlights the flaws in the food safety system

However, the affair of frozen pizzas Fraîch’Up and Stone oven machined in Caudry (North) and Bella Napoli made in Benevento, 75 kilometers from Naples, scandalizes. The poisoning of 56 people who ingested pizzas, the majority of whom were children, two of whom died, could be attributed to them following an ongoing judicial investigation. It is up to justice to demonstrate whether the production conditions in their factories have favored the development of the E. coli bacterium found in particular in the dough of a Fraîch’Up pizza. “This situation is all the more intolerable as children are concerned, we want to provide families with our deepest support”rebounds Pierre-Alexandre Teulié.

It’s a very Swiss, Protestant, efficient and virtuous culture where we do everything well but where we don’t talk

No question, however, of assuming the case by reacting Christophe Cornu, boss of Nestlé France, and even less the world CEO, Mark Schneider. In fact, the leaders of the group consider themselves irreproachable. As early as March 17, when they were alerted by the authorities to the suspicion involving one of their pizzas, they triggered a massive recall of the entire range and set up a toll-free number. Simultaneously, management stopped Caudry production on all lines.

Asked by the JDD, Valérie Bignon, general manager of communication and public affairs of Nestlé France from 2007 to 2016, is not surprised by the turn of events. “Nestlé is the corporate expression of the famous quote from the Savoyard prelate Saint Francis de Sales: noise does no good, and good does no noise”she formulates. “It’s a very Swiss, Protestant, efficient and virtuous culture where we do everything well but where we don’t talk about each other. It is the empire of silence”she continues.

lips are sealed

Motus therefore on Shift, the new French headquarters of the group, moved on the sly from the iconic site of Noisiel (Seine-et-Marne) to Issy-les-Moulineaux (Hauts-de-Seine) last year. And mouth sewn on the subjects which annoy. The former dircom remembers arriving in the midst of a crisis after NetCacao took over the Nestlé chocolate factory in Marseille, with strikers appearing on the 8 p.m. news every evening. “We had to put out the fire”she supports.

Read also – “My children are coming back up the slope, but it’s heavy”: a family, victim of contaminated pizzas, tells

A great media challenge for an intrinsically discreet group. “I had the confidence of the big boss in Vevey, Paul Bulcke, who considered me atypical and precious, and consequently that of Paris”, relates Valérie Bignon.

At the start of 2013, the crisis in meals prepared with horsemeat hit Maggi’s frozen recipes. The crisis unit set up at the time succeeded in demining by insisting on its safety standards and quality control. Above all, the scandal affects the entire industry in France. In 2014, a first Herta crisis broke out when a little boy choked while eating a Knacki sausage. The group reacted by trying to manage the crisis with great empathy.

To be silent is implausible

Two years later, a survey by Cash investigation magazine on nitrites in hams once again targeted Herta. Blacklisted by the show’s team, Nestlé France blames the blow. But by admitting in front of the camera that the “factories, it’s still ugly […]the industrial dimension disgusts the consumer”, Valérie Bignon collides with the management and is disembarked. The association of his remark with generic images of pork meat pricked by syringes containing an additive to fix the pink does not pass. Since then, a dispute opposes the group to its ex-dircom.

Home culture has reasserted itself. “The management of the Buitoni file is a ‘best of’ of what not to do in the event of a crisis”submits Cyrille Arcamone, founder of the Maarc agency, which specializes in sensitive communication. “General managers are absent subscribers, Nestlé began by hiding behind the Buitoni brand as we still dared to do in the 1980s, children died, a very serious matter, and images of the Caudry factory of a whistleblower showing hygienic conditions have been circulating for weeks, he develops. To be silent is unbelievable. »

The only attempt at communication comes down to an eight-minute video of Jérôme Jaton, the industrial CEO of Nestlé France, from the Caudry factory. “We are in action, it will be a long process, we are working with the authorities to understand what happened”distills the leader by answering questions prepared by the Nestlé cell.

Kinder vs Buitoni

The massive recalls initiated by Buitoni but also by the Ferrero group following food poisoning linked to the Kinder brand are also part of the panoply of crisis management measures. Both created toll-free numbers. But not with the same impact. This is what a survey of the professional magazine has just revealed. In touch. “The combination of tools put in place by the operator Sitel, in particular the callbot Zaion, has enabled Ferrero to correctly manage tens of thousands of calls, twenty-four hours a day. While Buitoni has opted for a minimal solution, even illegal since its teleoperators record the calls received without notifying the consumer”says Manuel Jacquinet, publisher ofIn touch.

Nestlé is very opaque in this case

Nestlé’s attitude also arouses the indignation of the victims’ lawyers. “While Ferrero’s management immediately called me, Nestlé is ostrich and spends its time clearing itself”, gets carried away Me Pierre Debuisson, who represents about fifty plaintiffs. Consumer associations have also entered the dance. Friday, on BFMTV, Ingrid Kragl, director of information for Foodwatch France, did not mince words. “Nestlé is very opaque in this case”she said.

At UFC-Que Choisir – the association is a civil party in the judicial inquiry – Olivier Andrault, food project manager, and Raphaël Bartlomé, legal director, talk about a “amazing reunion” with the DGCCRF on April 19. “I had sent a long list of questions to take stock of responsibilities and had almost no response”book Olivier Andrault. “In reality, manufacturers and governments have learned nothing from the scandals of mad cow disease, horsemeat lasagna and adulterated infant milk”, he laments. While waiting for justice to shed light on the origin of the killer bacteria, the empire of Vevey is silent.

An assumed avoidance strategy

Nestlé’s wait-and-see attitude since the start of the frozen pizza affair is also the result of an underlying strategy, according to a former executive. “After Herta or Mouslinehe said, the group wants to kill the Buitoni brand because it no longer enters into its development plans. » Nestlé relies on its global brands (Nespresso, Nescafé, etc.) and “commodities” (coffee, chocolate, water) considered more profitable than the local brands acquired at great expense in the 1980s.

Their management of the Buitoni crisis and its excesses – including the 20-euro gift certificate sent to victims – would find its explanation in an almost assumed cynicism internally. Thus, the Caudry plant may not reopen. The staff also knew that legal action would be taken and did not wish to give any sign of admission of any responsibility. As was the case in India in 2016 with a brand of toxic noodles, to the point of condemning it to lose its market share. MP.G.

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