Kroger's Kristal Howard runs a comms marathon

The director and head of communications talks shop amid an ongoing pandemic and racial injustice.

Kristal Howard, director and head of communications and media relations, Kroger
Kristal Howard, director and head of communications and media relations, Kroger

By the end of January, 2020, a novel coronavirus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of an illness in Wuhan, China, and had already spread to countries across Asia, Europe and North America. Many Americans thought little of this new disease when it first hit the news cycle in January. However, Kroger was already bracing for a potential crisis. 

As part of the largest supermarket chain in the world, Kroger’s leadership team was in constant communication with leaders in China, Singapore, Italy and other countries that were already heavily infected with COVID-19. When it became clear the U.S. would not be spared by the disease, Kristal Howard, director and head of communications and media relations at Kroger, leaned on her decade of experience working in communications with the supermarket chain and partnered with Kroger’s head of internal comms to craft a plan that would remind employees and customers that Kroger was there to serve them.

Like the rest of the country, Howard had more questions than answers at first. “What do you do when you are deemed an essential business by the federal government?” she asks. “How do you safely operate? How do you ensure your supply chain is operating efficiently?”

Parts of the country shut down, stay-at-home orders went into effect and grocery store shelves were alarmingly bare. 

As one of the few stores allowed to remain open in many states, Kroger saw a significant increase in sales. Online shopping was particularly bolstered as people sheltered in place with Q2 e-commerce sales up 127% year over year. 

But the company’s focus remained putting associates and customers first. 

“At the peak of the pandemic in the spring, when this was all so new and restaurants were closing down, people turned to Kroger as a primary food source,” Howard says. “As an essential business and as a food provider, we had to be really clear that this was our moment.”

The first step to serving its communities was hiring nearly 100,000 new workers, many of whom came from industries impacted by the pandemic. Kroger implemented an expedited hiring process that shortened a typical week-long onboarding to under 48 hours. 

“So many people were looking for employment, and we were able to supply that because there was such an immense need in our stores,” Howard says. 

Safety was top priority and because most of Kroger’s employee base (more than 500,000 associates) work on the retail side and thus couldn’t work from home, changes needed to be made in the company’s nearly 2,800 stores nationwide.

Communicating through a pandemic

Kroger is spread across 35 states, which meant Howard had to be agile with company policy and safety messaging. With a lack of federal guidance, states and municipalities took a piecemeal approach to safety mandates.

“We’ve seen different ordinances depending on what the governor felt appropriate for their region,” she says. “When you have such a fractured way of working, that presents its own challenges and we’ve had to be quick on our feet.”

Howard and the Kroger leadership team kept an eye on local, state and CDC mandates that were constantly changing, to ensure they remained in compliance.

Kroger’s “people first” model informed how it implemented more than 30 safety procedures across its stores including installing plexiglass partitions, social distancing floor decals and special shopping hours for higher risk customers.

It’s been a lot to keep up with, and Howard shares that it’s been a “wild ride” for Kroger’s comms team.

“It’s been a very frenzied time with not a lot of time to think,” she says. “Our comms team has been this nonstop, relentless machine because we’re at the center of it all, whether it’s our C-suite, our merchandising group operators or our health group.”

Howard and her team have had to lead Kroger through an unprecedented crisis without pause — or a game plan.

“It’s different from an acute crisis where you have a playbook,” she explains. “We know how to handle it if we’re going into the hole for a day or a week or two, but there aren’t any playbooks out there for a crisis that lasts a year. How do you ensure that you’re devising communication plans that are clear and concise when you don’t know everything?”

The rapid pace and lack of consistent health guidelines has made communicating even harder. The key for Howard and her team has been constant communication: with associates, with customers, with officials. Above all else, transparency rules. 

“We had to be intentional about sharing what we knew, but also intentional about sharing what we didn’t know,” Howard says. “The moment we learned a new piece of useful information, we would apply that and make the necessary guidelines.”

Transparency became particularly important when Kroger took the initiative in early coronavirus testing. 

Kroger Health, the company’s healthcare division, includes more than 2,200 pharmacies and 220 clinics. In April, mere weeks after parts of the country went into lockdown, Kroger opened its first drive-thru COVID-19 testing site. 

Two weeks later, drive-thru sites were available in 12 states and, by the end of August, Kroger Health had expanded testing to all 220 clinic locations and built out its ongoing testing services to Kroger communities at large with FDA-authorized COVID-19 testing home collection kits. 

In addition to vehicle drive-thru sites, Kroger also set up walk-thru sites, so people in disadvantaged communities who aren’t likely to have a vehicle have a suitable alternative.

“No matter your ZIP code or neighborhood, we all deserve access to healthcare and informed resources,” asserts Howard. 

At the end of October, Kroger took testing a step further and launched rapid antibody testing across its network of pharmacies to help inform patients whether they had previously been infected with COVID-19.

Internally, Howard faced another problem. The physical health of Kroger’s employees was only one half of the equation, and the company took its philosophy to “feed the human spirit” seriously, even during a global health crisis. 

In addition to financial compensation through bonuses and grocery store credit, Kroger has tried to help its employees cope with the anxiety, stress and mental fatigue of working during a pandemic. 

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Howard says. “The tricky part is we don’t know which mile this is. We don’t know whether to expend or conserve our energy.”

Howard helped institute shorter workdays to give associates time to recharge and restock without the worry of being around other people. Associates could make appointments with mental health professionals as part of their benefits package. 

Employees also have access to an internal social media system where they can express themselves. Howard sent out weekly surveys where associates could share their pain points, their joy points, how they were feeling and what resources would be most helpful to them.

“People are concerned about their well-being, their family’s well-being and interacting with other people,” she says. “They may need help, whether it’s outright fatigue or anxiety.”  

Availing one’s platform

The coronavirus wasn’t the only hurdle for Howard and her staff to overcome in 2020. 

The March police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and the May death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a new round of public outcry about the unjust treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement. 

Howard remembers watching events unfold on the news and social media. 

“I was just overcome with grief and hopelessness because you always want to think and hope that the last one was the last one, but it’s never the last one,” she says, adding that each new incident wears on her, and she questions whether she’s doing enough as a communicator.

Tensions increased after President Donald Trump’s tone-deaf reaction to the deaths at a bill signing ceremony in the Rose Garden in June. 

After protests boiled over into civil unrest, Trump called protesters “THUGS” on Twitter and threatened to involve the National Guard, warning, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

“As a comms professional you have such a platform and get to choose your words and how you express yourself,” Howard explains. “When you see individuals in such prominent positions using words to harm, that hurts as a communicator.” 

Despite the divisive rhetoric coming from the White House, Howard felt that companies were finally taking notice and pledging change around racial injustice. 

Kroger’s leadership went a step further than its typical DEI initiatives, and Howard and her Black colleagues knew their input would be important in determining company messaging. 

“It felt different this time on an individual level and on a corporate level,” Howard says, adding that she and her Black colleagues came together to discuss how they would talk about race internally and externally. “I remember being very transparent and very vulnerable, and I took a step back because at the time I didn’t have the emotional capacity to help.” 

Howard took a long weekend and attended a peaceful protest in downtown Cincinnati to connect with the people there. Then the real work began. 

Using her platform within the company, Howard advocated for personal conversations with colleagues and non-Black friends, including Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen. “He came to me very humbled and earnestly asked questions about what was appropriate to say,” she recalls. “We had such a vulnerable, productive exchange in that moment.” 

In subsequent weeks, the company hosted a series of sessions where Black associates at all levels could have an open dialogue. 

Howard and McMullen attended these “eye-opening” sessions, where they heard firsthand accounts of how Black people live their lives worried about where they traveled on vacation and which hotels may be accepting of people of color. 

“It was important for us to start on the inside, so we got really honest with ourselves,” she says. “You don’t just go out and fix the world; you fix your home first.”

In October, Kroger released an updated DEI Framework For Action that focused on 10 immediate actions the company would take with the objectives to create an inclusive culture, develop diverse talent, advance diverse partnership, advance equitable communities and “deeply listen” and report on progress.

Kroger will provide unconscious bias training and DEI training for every associate by May 2021 and increase spending with diverse suppliers from $3.4 billion to $10 billion by 2030, among other aims. 

Across the country diverse talent were included in two-way mentorship and advocacy programs with senior leaders. Howard saw this inclusion on a personal level when her colleagues gave her space to heal and supported her when she stepped into her pivotal role as a Black woman communicator. 

“A huge responsibility comes when you have this type of platform,” she emphasizes. “Not only is it my job to champion for changes at a leadership level, it’s also for the cashier. You have to be inclusive of the LGBTQ experience, the Latinx experience, the person with an intellectual or physical disability.” 

Being one’s true self

Howard described the importance of being part of a company that employs people who represent what different communities look like and encourages its associates to be their full selves in a video released in February 2020. 

“Any smart business understands the power that individuals who are living authentically and boldly can bring to an organization,” she says in the video.

Howard spends her weekends hanging out at local coffee shops and supporting small Black-owned businesses because they are part of her community. 

“It’s my responsibility to bring those perspectives wherever I go,” she says, adding that she has tried to fit into a box that wasn’t her before. “No one should ever feel as though they have to disguise a part of themselves in the workplace — whether that’s box braids or an afro. I take it as a great responsibility to show up as all of me, so other people feel comfortable showing up as well.”

Communicating through fashion

Kristal Howard is a passionate consumer of vintage fashion. But more than the thrill of the perfect find — such as a $10 red leather skirt dug out of the racks of a vintage shop in Cincinnati — Howard uses her clothing as another form of expression.

“For me fashion is a language,” Howard says. “That’s one of the ways I show up and that I live as my authentic self.”  

While some people think fashion is frivolous, Howard argues there’s always a message to send with the clothing you choose to wear because it shapes how people perceive you. 

“If you’re looking for someone to lead your brand efforts, your marketing efforts, your PR efforts, it’s an important thing to look for,” she says. “If they’re not pulled together, there’s a chance they can’t pull your brand together either.”

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