Market Basket: This isn’t a PR Problem

market basket headerIf you live anywhere in metro Boston, you’ve heard about the Market Basket issue.

To the uninitiated the basics are this: Market Basket is a regional grocery chain owned by a single family. The chain had been owned by two brothers and split evenly, but when one brother, George, died, his heirs thought they would inherit their dad’s half of the company. It didn’t work out that way and so began a fight that pit cousin against cousin. It came to a head recently when the board ousted the CEO in more of the family squabble. Then the employees got involved, staging a protest to bring the CEO back.

This whole drama is playing out in the major media and the main question being asked is: how can a company screw up its communications this badly? And yes, it’s bad. While the workers let shelves run empty and then stood out front of stores asking shoppers to stay away until “Arthur T” comes back as CEO, the company’s board has said nothing. Market Basket doesn’t even have a website. The closest thing to a Market Basket site is one started by a lone web developer designed to help people get access to coupons and store times. Arthur T was loved by his employees and the Boston Globe’s Adrian Walker demonstrates why:

We toured the Chelsea store together last summer, during an earlier chapter of the fight that has pitted his wing of the family against the one led by his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas. I figured seeing him in his element would be more interesting than talking to him in some downtown conference room. But the connection between the magnate and his employees was frankly shocking. Demoulas knew almost everyone’s name. He knew the name of the guy cutting meat whose wife had just completed chemotherapy and asked about her with obvious concern. Customers came up to him and hugged him, cheered him on. The interactions were too numerous and spontaneous to be staged.

As for the current board? No website, no corporate presence in the media, no spokesperson and no outbound communications. The connection with its employees appears to be one of “we pay you, you do work.” This isn’t a company that can do PR well; it’s not in its DNA.

A lot of friends have asked, “if you represented Market Basket, what would you do?”

That may not be the right question, though. The truth is, would the Market Basket board listen to a firm they hired? In watching how they’re handling this crisis, not just through the PR lens but also through the corporate actions, I’m not sure they’d listen to an outside agency, even one they hired.

This isn’t a PR problem, it’s a corporate problem that plays out through PR. Even a great PR program won’t fix the core problems, but it can help communicate the right messages, provided those messages exist.

Any PR program is a collaboration between the company and the agency with both sides doing their part in getting the right messages to the right people. A company that hires a PR firm and thinks “I’ll just pay them lots of money and all my problems will be solved” simply won’t succeed.

The most successful PR program is a collaboration. The PR team listens to the client, researches the market, brings its experience to the table and comes up with a plan. The client listens, provides feedback, and helps feed the PR program with information. Every PR person has had the experience of a corporate executive who was “just too busy” to make an interview, leaving the PR person to pick up the pieces. Then, later, the executive wonders why they weren’t in the story.

In the case of Market Basket, any plan needs to begin with employee communications. That is, the board must communicate a clear direction for the company, especially if it doesn’t include selling the assets to the beloved Arthur T, directly with the employees. They must demonstrate that the employees are more than just a profit-center, but actually a part of the organization and its future.

I’m not talking about writing a single email that gets blasted to everyone, though that’s a start. I mean store-by-store meetings in which executives show up and speak with the people. These should be town hall-style forums in which executives take questions and then actually answer them. They don’t hide, they don’t skirt hard questions, they admit that this was handled poorly, own up to their mistakes and lay out a plan for moving forward.

The plan also needs to include time with the press, we’re talking old-school sit-downs with major media and key reporters. Pick and choose carefully, because those relationships will be necessary later.

Finally, the plan must include coming into the modern age with communications. Yes, Market Basket needs a website, but it also needs a corporate voice to document the changes the company lays out in its plan. Call it a blog if you want, but there are many ways to handle this issue. It could be a daily video aimed at employees but shared with the world, it could be an online news service, it could simply be a very active social presence.

There also needs to be a community forum for Market Basket employees that is monitored by the corporate parent so key issues can bubble up. The employees obviously care for their company deeply, the board must hear from them. In fact, every board meeting should include an employee advocate who takes the information from the forums, as well as other feedback and data, and reports that back to the board.

Of course, all of this assumes that the board is listening and this is about business. Unfortunately, all indications are that this isn’t business, it’s personal, and the past is littered with broken brands that had great runs but ran into the family business curse, when personal feuds drove business decisions.

About Mower Boston

Boston's Mower office is a full-service technology marketing, PR and branding agency. Our B2B stories illustrate projects and campaigns in a variety of markets and media that range from local impact in Boston and New England to global proportions.

Comments

  1. Renee says:

    The BoD and CEOs don’t care about the business…. Their statements were insulting, because they didn’t know their customers.

    I’m a third generation customer. Market Basket hired from our community, from retirees and our teenage children, as well as the full-time employees.

    We know the hostility for Artie T, by Author S.. The new CEOs may have control of a corporate entity, but not the customers and the community.

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