The right call for Sainsbury's?

In the last in a fortnightly series, Electric Airwaves MD Andrew Caesar-Gordon analyses how one corporate message has played out through the media.

One of the themes of these 16 case studies, of which this is the last, has been that PR professionals should always look to be on the front foot.

We are at our best when we do not default to the old 'usual' ways of approaching proactive PR, issues or crisis management.

And so to Sainsbury's.

Checkout assistant tells customer, incorrectly, that company policy means she will not be served until she stops talking on her mobile phone at the till. Customer tells the London Evening Standard.

Sainsbury's acts in the time honoured way. Is the customer not always right? It issues a press statement clarifying that this is not policy, apologising to the customer and offering a £10 compensatory voucher. The customer nonetheless tells everyone she is heading off to Waitrose.

But then social media go mad in support of the checkout assistant against the 'rude' customer. So media run with this new angle.

Comedian Dom Joly, he of the huge mobile phone, is suddenly writing articles and giving interviews on the matter.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg gets in on the act: 'I have a sneaking sympathy for her. But I understand Sainsbury's has to be on the side of its customers.'

Not according to most newspapers, radio hosts and Twitter, it doesn't.

Seeing how things are turning, Sainsbury's writes a letter to all staff and (I'm guessing) leaks it to the media. Sainsbury's is 'pleased the story is leading to a wider debate on politeness ... (hopes) that the discussion this has created leads us all to think twice before reaching for our mobile phones and to recognise the great job the many thousands of sales assistants working across retail do'.

Sainsbury's could have been quicker. Half of the original Standard story was a listing of tweets and Have Your Say comments in support of the shop worker.

But someone in the communication team persuaded management that there was a proactive PR opportunity here to almost volte face and align the company with prevailing public opinion.

Takeaway Tips
* Sainsbury's adapted well (just as Tesco did on the back of the horsemeat issues) and got on to the front foot. It diverted attention away from the negative and on to the positive. It was also able to find a way to demonstrate support for staff, having not originally done so.
* Don't just default to the standard way of operating. Stop. Think. Is there something better we can be doing here that allows us to drive the agenda?
* We are at our most effective when we act as advisers to our organisations, not merely agents of management.

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