Focus: ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS FOR WHEN IT ALL GOES SOUR

WHEN DISASTER strikes, to whom does a company such as Coca-Cola turn? A clued-up firm will already have crisis managers on its books. It's not cheap but the results speak for themselves.

In 1990 when Perrier discovered traces of benzine at one of its plants, it had to destroy 40 million bottles at a cost of pounds 20m. It had a crisis plan in place through Infoplan, its PR company. Daphne Barrett, Infoplan's managing director, says that in the 10 days after the news broke, her office handled 5,000 media calls, 7,000 from the retail trade and 15,000 from consumers worried about carcinogenic links with benzine. Ten years on, Perrier's recovery is hailed as a textbook case of crisis management well handled. It relaunched with the successful Helleau ad campaign, and after a long haul regained market share.

Martin Langford has spent 20 years advising companies under fire, most famously the Farley's salmonella baby milk scare. Now, as Burson- Marsteller's managing director, he says he finds himself arguing with clients about what to do in a crisis.

"Senior managers want to delay speaking to the press when something bad happens. They are afraid they haven't got all the facts they need. But I tell them to `over-communicate' with the public. It's better to go on TV immediately and say you're finding out what went wrong. Tell the truth. And say sorry - it's amazing how reluctant people are to use that word."

When a crisis breaks, PR advisers can write speeches, produce briefing notes for employees and record a phone message for a customer helpline. "Someone with a legal background is not always the right person to address the public," says Mr Langford. "In food scares a female spokesperson tends to be more effective. We know that people will empathise better with a woman."

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