How to make cheese and irritate people

Kraft’s muddle over its appearance before a House of Commons committee shows what happens when lawyers trump communicators

In some ways it’s hard to know where to place the blame over the latest Kraft corporate PR fiasco. Should it lie with top lawyer Marc Firestone, who chided the UK legislature for having the cheek to continually ask his boss to address them, even though they had had a response from him to say that he was sufficient? Who wrote to tell the committee that their purpose in inviting his boss was to insult her? Who was disingenuous enough to say to the committee that he couldn’t see why they’d want to discuss factory closures, even after Kraft had gone back on its commitment to save Somerdale? And whose irritation and discomfort with the whole debacle was clear to everyone to see?

Should it lie with the PR advisers? According to newspaper reports, they had told Irene Rosenfeld to stay away from Bournville because of ill-feeling. Had they read the comments on Mail Online, and deduced that the British Parliament is so rotten to its core that they would be corrupted by even speaking to our fearless and craven MPs? (Mail Online participants believed that they had.) In my experience, it’s unlikely. The natural response of lawyers is to go on the defensive, to want to avoid setting a precedent – if you speak to this legislature, you’ll have to speak to that one. The natural response of comms people is to go positive, to answer questions, to advise that the organisation put its case – and sometimes the person who has to do that is the boss. My advice, and the advice of fellow comms professionals with whom I’ve discussed this (hey! Cafe thinking Live!), would have been to have urged Irene Rosenfeld to take her seat in front of the committee, prep her well, and get her to win them over. In short, we would have advised her to have led from the front and to have shown that the company had absolutely no embarrassment or awkwardness about its plans for its UK business.

Irene Rosenfeld didn’t get where she is today by shying away from her duties. Today, those who counselled caution and an avoidance of potential embarrassment can see the result – lots of headlines questioning her guts. The lawyers were wrong. But it’s down to the CEO to choose the right path. If Irene Rosenfeld is embarrassed today, she has only herself to blame.

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