If Tesco's early response is any gauge, the reputational and financial damage could well be short lived. Indeed, it’s response to the crisis has so far ticked all the boxes.
Tesco’s in-house crisis management team has been in overdrive: apologising at every turn and positioning Tesco as trustworthy and open in as many was that it can.
That included full-page advertisements in the British press with the headline "We Apologise", where it promised to find out what happened and report back with its findings.
Tesco also turned to social media to quell unrest and reassure customers it was taking the issue seriously. As well as issuing a large apology on its Facebook page and web site, Tesco’s chief executive Philip Clarke was quick to blog about the need for trust in the food chain.
To its credit, Tesco faced the crisis head on and with genuine regret, ensuring senior executives were ready to face the media in the first few hours of the scandal – crucial to managing any crisis.
Executives made it clear in media interviews that their supplier, Silvercrest, was responsible for producing the tainted products. But rather than shirk responsibility, Tesco took it on the chin and acknowledged it had a duty to customers to ensure that products bearing its logo were not compromised.
It responded quickly by withdrawing all products from the supplier in question and it apologised to customers for any distress.
"We will not tolerate any compromise in the quality of the food we sell,” Tesco said. “The presence of illegal meat in our products is extremely serious. Our customers have the right to expect that food they buy is produced to the highest standards… we apologise sincerely for any distress."
According to Marketing Week, the scandal fuelled a rise in negative comments about Tesco on Twitter, and not surprisingly almost a third, or 33 per cent, of comments have been negative.
If nothing else, "Horsegate" highlights the power of social media: customers spoke, Tesco listened and responded. In the process, it may have minimised any long term brand damage.
It has even seen the funny side of a bad situation, with this Tweet by its Customer Care account @UKTesco.
Some claim the Tweet was in poor taste and poorly-timed. But in a crisis, an even mix of empathy, humour and authenticity can go a long way to diffusing difficult situations.
Admittedly the supermarket chain will have a difficult job convincing shoppers to trust its burger patties in the short term. But the trust and integrity in Tesco and its products will return as long as the supermarket chain is seen and heard to be doing the right thing.
That means coming up with a full and thorough explanation of what went wrong - and fast - because without that, all the apologies in the world will count for nothing.
Here are three simple tips to help you respond more effectively in a crisis:
Respond quickly Media are hungry to report the news, if they don’t get it from you they will get it from someone else. The sooner you take control of the issue, the sooner you can start to rebuild faith;
Be proactive Give reporters the facts and keep them fully informed about the crisis in a way that protects public health and safety, shows your brand values and meets your legal responsibilities;
Hit the hurt Listen to what your customers are saying on social media and respond to their concerns. Outrage is usually irrational in the early stages so don’t focus on the ‘facts’, focus on the emotions. If an apology is needed, give it. And resist the urge to engage in arguments with reporters or customers on social media.
UPDATE: January 30, 2013 As promised, Tesco responded quickly by making public its findings of an investigation into the horsemeat scandal. The retailer has axed its supplier for "breach of trust". You can see the video and full statement here.