Food PR: What Sainsburys teaches us about internal comms

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Before this particular PR agency blog post begins properly, let’s make one thing clear. We’ve long been advocates of Sainsburys, and believe it sells far superior products to its nearest rival, Tesco, and also has far more aesthetically appealing store designs. Nevertheless, it appears that something isn’t quite right at this particular UK supermarket giant.
And that’s not a reference to the rise of the discounters, with Aldi and Lidl luring shoppers away from Britain’s big three. Nor is it a nod to Waitrose’s exponential expansion, with more and more outlets opening in the north, bringing the purveyor of elegant groceries to the doorstep of an increasing number of homes across the country.
Instead, there seems to be a problem with internal communications, the likes of which have brought about a major fall in public perception over the last couple of weeks alone. It’s proof, if it were needed, that great public relations begins in the back office, and only really ventures into the world of consumers during planned pushes and campaigns. Indeed, without iron-clad training of company policy you can do all the clever marketing in the world, but someone, somewhere, is going to see through those external messages, and find you less than transparent.
Not so long ago we highlighted in the weekly Blagger’s Blog (3rd October) how a poster that was supposed to appear behind the scenes in Sainsburys, encouraging staff to try and get customers to spend 50p extra per visit between now and New Year, had accidentally been placed in a shop window for those very same customers to see. Needless to say, in an era of austerity, it doesn’t look good for a firm ┬áturning over millions to attempt even a tiny increase in profitability off the back of products average folk didn’t set out to buy, irrespective of whether that firm’s share in the market is slumping (a key reason why Nectar reward points have also been slashed, angering customers immensely). Worse still, the fact that an employee was allowed to misconstrue the message so wildly and wasn’t briefed properly on the new concept looks far worse.
This is, of course, assuming that it wasn’t a desperate attempt to expose the company for its attempt at persuading consumers to part with more money than they originally intended. Which it may well have been- a little like the time a baker in Sainsburys Local, Mornington Crescent, London, decided to insert haiku-style poetry into packs of Taste The Difference Cookies, complaining about boredom on the job and terrible pay.
Alas, we digress. Following poster-gate- which resulted in Aldi poking fun by issuing similar signage to its stores explaining to customers how they want everyone to spend 50p less- we then move on to a situation that unfolded in Brighton last week. It’s National Coming Out Day, an idea that was supposed to celebrate modern civil rights and equality amongst people of all sexualities. Instead, a lesbian couple who were seen kissing in an aisle of the town’s Sainsburys were asked to stop or leave the premises after another customer complained.
Arguably one of the worst moves a representative of a major firm could make in a supposedly-liberal Britain circa 2014, the fall out from this has been huge. Negative headlines abound (along with a ridiculous piece of clickbait from Mirror* online entitled ‘10 ridiculous things people say to female same-sex couples‘), there’s also a ‘kiss-in‘ being planned by university students in Brighton, which is a little like a sit-in, only with more snogging.
Again the problem here seems to be communication of policy, acceptable behaviour and general training of customer-facing employees- perhaps the most important area of a workforce to equip with the necessary social skills, moral and ethical framework to ensure gay people are not biased against. Or any other group for that matter.
So, what does Sainsburys teach us about internal comms? Mainly that it’s vital to ensure there are no faces of your brand that can humiliate and demonise the company by offering training, workshops and refresher sessions on how to deal with any and every situation, and, above all, making it clear that under no circumstances will prejudice of any kind be tolerated. Oh, and be mindful who is allowed to decorate stores. All easy steps to take, and all vital if you want to maintain that positive public perception.
*blog amended @ 17.10 15th October to correct error – news story is from the The Mirror online not the Mail