It’s been a busy week with badgers. From farmers being threatened with losing Freedom Food accreditation if they take part in the impending cull pilot and pre-eminent scientists criticising the government’s cull policy in a national newspaper, to MPs securing a six-hour debate in the Commons next Thursday, badgers are hogging headlines.

Working out what role a badger cull should play in tackling bovine TB is, of course, a matter for government, its scientists and the farming community. But that hasn’t stopped retailers and suppliers facing growing scrutiny over the cull.

So how worried should retailers be about the potential impact on sales and corporate reputation? And what are the best strategies for keeping reputational damage at bay?

The cull has garnered plenty of mainstream media coverage, but so far it doesn’t appear to be of huge concern to most shoppers. As one source puts it, “retailers are still having to deal with far more calls from journalists than from consumers about this”, while a dairy industry insider suggests consumer complaints about low farmgate milk prices vastly outnumbered those so far about badgers.

But this should not lull the industry into a false sense of security, warns Scott Thomson, who heads the European crisis management practice of PR consultants Edelman. “I think this issue will heat up further and the animal rights lobby is going to be gunning for anyone associated with it. This will include retailers,” he warns.

Although it is true that consumers primarily care about price and quality, social and ethical issues can have an important impact on what shoppers buy – and where. “Our consumer research shows time and again that when quality and price are equal, ‘social purpose’ is key,” says Thomson.

This means if shoppers perceive certain retailers to be more “ethical” in their cull stance, there is a risk they will change how they shop in the long term, he adds. To date, the major retailers have, in essence, all adopted the same stance on the cull – they have made clear it is a matter for farmers and the government, and will not affect their sourcing policies (see TB badger cull: the supermarkets have their say,, 20 September 2012).

But Thomson suggests hiding behind government policy isn’t enough. “Simply deferring to the government won’t do,” he argues. Those who come out firmly for or against the cull could have a real first-mover advantage, he adds.

It’s a view vigorously opposed by Amy Jackson, owner of Oxtale PR, which advised on communications for the controversial Nocton “mega dairy” proposals. “Retailers have absolutely nothing to gain from trying to differentiate here,” she warns. “Their strength will come from singing from the same hymn sheet. That will stop them from being drawn into individual squabbles.”

The focus for retailers needs to be on communicating the corporate line to frontline staff and ensuring in-store personnel have been trained to deal with customer queries, Jackson says. “You need to arm your staff now because there will be protests and there will be queries.”

This also extends to retailers’ social media, she adds. “I’d say retailers are getting it largely right on social media – they are being responsive and answering customer queries, but are also firm about not being drawn into the argument. They will need to hold that line.”

Thomson agrees getting it right “at the coalface” will be key. “When things go wrong from a reputation management point of view, it’s when staff don’t know how to respond to queries or get surprised by protestors and all of a sudden have a video camera shoved in their face. That’s when you need to get worried,” he says.

It’s a worry likely to stay top of mind for retailers. With next week’s HoC debate just around the corner, the cull furore won’t go away any time soon.