How Pret A Manger got it very wrong and a little bit right

The death of a young person is always going to be highly emotive, especially so when the prevailing view is that the death was preventable and that a corporate entity is in some way to blame. Such were the circumstances surrounding the teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s death from an allergic reaction from having eaten a Pret A Manger baguette.

As with many of these incidents the situation is more complex than the headlines care to tell however with the benefit of hindsight the company might feel that their strategy for reputation management could have been better.

Pret is a massive international company. The company sells around 218 million food products a year and is a common sight on the high street, airports and railway stations. They are a strong food brand, and we as consumers place our trust in food manufacturers and retailers. When they let us down, it tends to be big news. Think KFC, think Bernard Matthews, think BSE.

It must be said that Pret A Manger was within the law with the way they labelled their products, however, the spirit of the legislation was to protect small owner operated sandwich shops, food made in “local kitchens”, from onerous packaging and labelling.  Pret didn’t have to label allergens and chose not to.  As a major firm making significant profits it was seen to be hiding behind that legislation with its decision not to label and that was deemed, in the court of public opinion, to be putting the public, and those who invested their trust in the company, at risk. Don’t play fast and loose with your customer’s safety.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died in July 2016.  The legal processes tend to move forward slowly because they need to be considered and thorough and that takes time. The Coroners Inquest is a major milestone in the process and Pret A Manager will have had that date on their corporate wall planner for some considerable time. Recognising the medical cause of death was due to an allergic reaction to something in their baguette they had the opportunity to change their labelling practice. They had two years to make that change and chose not to.

I cannot say for sure but my suspicion would be that their motive for not making any change was legal advice that it might be perceived as an admission of guilt. There are parallels to the tour operator Thomas Cook who would not apologise for the deaths of two children who died from carbon monoxide poisoning until after the Coroners Inquest.  There exists a catalogue of organisations who during a crisis hide behind their lawyers and get it very badly wrong. Pret have now changed their labelling policies, but if that had been done a year ago it would have been far better received. In crisis situations put people first and act decisively and swiftly.

Where Pret also took a hit was that once the media get their claws into you they start digging. What turned up was that there had been a second death linked to an allergic reaction in December 2017. This was a non-Pret branded product but sold in their stores. To the media that didn’t matter, and it gave a new momentum to their story. The fact that Pret ended the contract with the producer soon after is immaterial. The damage had been done.

Pret A Manger have managed aspects of this situation better than others. The apology, when it came, was a handwritten letter from the CEO, Clive Schlee, to Natasha’s parents and certainly appeared both genuine and heartfelt. After the inquest, Mr Schlee spoke to the gathered media immediately and directly outside the courtroom rather than seeking the controlled safety of a corporate office.  He promised Pret would learn and act.

Changes are now being made and the company has given every indication that they have learned lessons from the tragic death of a 15-year-old girl and evidence is that the changes they are making will be meaningful. But, as Natasha’s parents, Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, said it was “too little, too late”.