Corporate PR: Supermarkets begin to tackle their critics - Facing a barrage of criticism from farmers, suppliers and high street retailers, the big four supermarkets have banded together to hire a troubleshooting spokesperson

Baroness Thornton is arming herself with statistics. The holidays may only just be over, but the newly appointed official spokeswoman for the big four supermarkets is already facing her first confrontation with the farming lobby, on Sky TV’s weekend news.

Baroness Thornton is arming herself with statistics. The holidays

may only just be over, but the newly appointed official spokeswoman for

the big four supermarkets is already facing her first confrontation with

the farming lobby, on Sky TV’s weekend news.



Flak-busting is Thornton’s job. She went freelance in 1992, after 12

years as public and policy affairs adviser at the Co-operative Wholesale

Society, and now works partly as an associate director of lobbying

agency Political Context. Her clients include NCH Action for Children

and the National Asthma Campaign.



The British Retail Consortium (BRC) hired her in November on a

four-month contract to give the supermarkets their first collective

voice.



’They were getting a bashing, which was a bit of a surprise to them as

they are a well regarded industry,’ Thornton says. ’It wasn’t possible

for one of them to speak for all, so they approached me to hold the ring

between them.’



The next few weeks will be bruising for them all. Tuesday sees the

National Farmers Union launching a campaign to get the supermarkets to

buy British at a House of Commons reception hosted by food minister Lord

Donoghue.



Pig producers, angry at the discrepancy between supermarket profits and

their own dwindling margins, will march on a protest rally at

Westminster the following week.



More importantly, some time in the next month, the Office of Fair

Trading (OFT) will deliver its long-awaited verdict on allegations that

the top four - Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Safeway - have not been

passing on discounts from suppliers to consumers. The story has come

full circle: the OFT sparked the current wave of anti-supermarket

feeling when it announced its inquiry last July.



Lined up against them is an uncoordinated, but noisy, group of small

suppliers, farmers, high street traders, environmentalists and consumer

protection bodies. The main accusations are that supermarkets make

excessive profits, don’t support British producers, fail to pass on

savings and are a blight on small local retailers. ’The paradox is that

we are supposed to be so powerful, but getting the media to stop

repeating rubbish parrot fashion is a struggle,’ says Kevin Hawkins,

Safeway’s director of communications.



He adds: ’Initially, the four principal supermarkets found it difficult

to come to a common view, not so much about the nonsense but how to

respond to it.’



The answer was to recruit a high-profile spokesperson to handle general

media relations. Thornton’s main task has been compiling data from City

analysts (who remain largely unfazed), retail specialists such as market

research company Verdict and wider economic reports to counter the

prevailing media view.



Under her aegis, the BRC published a MORI opinion poll in December. It

showed 61 per cent of consumers think they get value for money from

supermarkets and only 17 per cent are unhappy about prices. There is to

be a follow-up. At the end of the year, the BRC also launched a Shop

Price Index to track price changes.



’I’m not looking to do any whitewashing,’ says Thornton. ’We want to

look at the criticisms and say: ’Is this justified? If it is, what’s the

answer? If not, what’s the answer?’’



She has three core messages: that UK supermarkets are world class

businesses and vital to the economy; that they provide high quality

shopping for millions of people, and that they are highly responsible

and a force for good in local communities. She either stands up herself

or orchestrates the supermarkets’ response.



Jane Boardman, managing director of Ketchum Life and a former Asda

account handler, says: ’As an industry, they need to get the

opinion-forming media in context and not disregard the ordinary customer

base - concentrate on the tabloids and the local press. However, the

group is a good idea. It takes risk away from individual companies

putting their necks out.’



The intense competition between the supermarkets creates a habit of

secrecy.



Thornton’s appointment represents a big cultural change.



’Over the past few years, we have been extremely active in getting our

message across,’ says Andrew Coker, Tesco corporate affairs manager.

’But you only put information into the public domain if there is a need

for it.’



Safeway alone has taken the decision to put up a spokesperson wherever

possible. All the big four took part in the initial groundwork for the

Panorama documentary Superpowers in November (audience figures shot up

from the usual four million to over six million). Apart from Thornton,

however, only Safeway’s Hawkins actually appeared.



Sainsbury’s offered to allow a buyer to be filmed negotiating with a

supplier. And the programme-makers did interview chief executive Dino

Adriano. Head of press Pip Wood says: ’Unfortunately, the information

didn’t suit their agenda.’



Next month, the OFT will either exonerate the supermarkets, widen its

investigation or refer the issue to the Monopolies and Mergers

Commission.



Exoneration would clearly undermine the protesters, but they are

unlikely to go away. The supermarkets may need a deeper rethink, not

only on the openness of individual companies but on whether they should

appoint a permanent spokesman.



With millions shopping in supermarkets every week, stories affecting

customers will always find a prominent place in the media.



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