'PR is vital but you can't talk your way out of problems' - how comms aided Tesco's recovery

"You can't talk your way out of problems you behave your way into" - that's the message from Tesco comms director Jane Lawrie as she described how the supermarket giant recovered from recent crises.

Jane Lawrie: PR 'has to be integral to the business'
Jane Lawrie: PR 'has to be integral to the business'

Speaking at PRWeek’s PR360 event in London yesterday, Lawrie spoke of the "serious trust" deficit in the business in 2014 following the accounting scandal and complaints about treatment of suppliers.

"We know that PR is not going to fix the problem," Lawrie stated. "You can’t talk your way out of problems you behave your way into.

"When you’re in a crisis, the communications person gets called into the office and is asked to fix it. We were not going to fix this by talking our way out of the problem, and the good thing is that the business understood that and knew that they needed to do something differently."

The response was to focus on building trust and transparency, for which "the communications piece was going to be critical". This was based on a "new purpose": "serving our shoppers a little better every day".

CEO Dave Lewis hosted an event for Tesco employees at the Birmingham NEC, attended by 8,000 staff, where he outlined the plans. Lawrie said that afterwards, 96 per cent of staff understood and believed in the purpose. "That was a pretty good start."

This was supported by actions, including making it easier for staff to order uniforms to introducing 'family and friends' discount cards. "It’s really about how we make the right decisions, not say the right words," Lawrie stressed.

In addition, Lewis and Tesco’s chief product officer spoke to 200 suppliers, and made changes in the relationship, including bringing payment terms for smallest suppliers forward by 34 days and publishing supplier terms and conditions online.

This "really started to build that trust", Lawrie said, and satisfaction among suppliers subsequently rose from around 50 to over 70 per cent.

Other changes included publishing data on food waste and encouraging people to swap items for similar but healthier ones.

Lawrie told the conference: "As we look at the way the industry is changing, the market is changing, it’s clear that PR has to be essential. It has to be integral to the business.

"One of the things we should ask ourselves is, as we become embedded in the business, is there a danger that you get subsumed by the rest of the organisation? What I would say to that is, we should absolutely embrace that, we shouldn’t revert into our silos. But by being data-led, by really speaking our language in the business, and by helping the business make the right choices, we become extremely essential, and then bringing the creative flair that we have, we become vital to bring that to life."

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