By Heather Dande, VP of Public Relations
Three weeks ago on a rainy Sunday, I stopped in at Market Basket in Chelsea for the first time since the chain’s crisis began. At that point I knew very little of the crisis other than that there were mobs of protesters telling me to honk for Artie T. I thought, “Artie T. who? What was the crisis?” As a student studying public relations, I was intrigued in this PR crisis. As soon as I stepped into Market Basket I noticed the atmosphere was empty. Normally on Sundays, a grocery store is bustling with chipper kids begging their parents for the Oreos they need to have, and irritated parents crossing off items on their grocery list with a crayon they found on the car floor. But that Sunday, the sound of a single cart, wheeling slowly replaced the typical chorus of checkout scanning beeps.
As I meandered through the store realizing the seriousness of the crisis with each passing aisle, the barren shelves became a sea of emptiness symbolizing the destruction of Market Basket’s corporation and in turn, its public relations. So, what’s the deal?
This past June, the beloved Arthur T. Demoulas, affectionately known as Artie T., was removed from his CEO position by the board of directors while his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, known only for his standoffish nature, headed the board. With Arthur T.’s swift removal came an unprecedented employee upheaval, complete with fervent protesters and boycotting customers. While Arthur T. had previously ensured exemplary benefits and fair wages (4% for the year of 2014 for every purchase), heavy-handed Arthur S. and his board saw fit to fire loyal employees, further damaging his public image as well as customer and employee trust. For a friendly neighborhood market, the public didn’t see his ways as friendly or neighborly.
To date, thousands of protestors have rallied around Market Baskets across New England in support of “the people’s CEO,” Arthur T., resulting in numerous firings, solemn faced cashiers, disappointed customers, and shelves lacking the things we love, such as Nutella (#notokay). As sales plummeted and the power struggle continued within the corporation, several mistakes were made in implementing damage control. Before delving into them, it must be noted that on August 27th, a deal was reached in which Arthur T. bought Market Basket from his cousin resulting in a wave of released tension across New England. However, there are several lessons to be learned here.
While Market Basket certainly had a public relations crisis, the basis of the issue mustn’t be forgotten. Chuck Tanowitz, vice president of Hart Boillot Agency in Western Massachusetts, wrote regarding the crisis, “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.” The crisis is a corporate issue first. No amount of damage control can heal a corporation crumbling from within. Putting aside teams Arthur S. and Arthur T., let’s take a look at what Market Basket should have done, damage control wise, throughout this:
Engage in conversation! That means talking AND listening. Proper communication with the public and professionals who can handle the situation appropriately is important to maintain the integrity of and loyalty to a brand. Market Basket had no clear and effective messages to communicate leaving the public in the dark- unless you count Arthur S. and the board’s message to fire those who did not go back to work. The driving forces behind a corporation’s success are the employees and customers. Without them a corporation cannot survive. Effective communication between all parties keeps the truth on the table and shadiness out of maintaining good relations.
Take control of your brand’s social media presence. Social media has proven over and over again how it can make or break a brand or public image. Using it effectively can have powerful, even viral results. It opens up a direct line of communication with consumers and humanizes the relationship creating loyalty and trust. Until recently, Market Basket did not even have a website, let alone a Twitter or Facebook page. In fact, the website Market Basket does have is unofficial and run by an independent website developer with no affiliation. The most social media presence the chain had during all of this was “support Artie T.” Facebook and Twitter pages. Had Market Basket communicated clear and appropriate messages to protect and defend its brand, the crisis might not have damaged it to the extent it did. Tom Gordon, a supervisor at Market Basket for almost four decades, explained, “Technology is not part of our company culture” (as quoted in Boston Globe). In a time where technology practically runs society, this is the kind of wrong mentality that can prove to be destructive in the absence of a brand’s social media presence. On the other hand, the employees’ success in taking social media by storm with their campaigns on Facebook and Twitter has proven the power of clear, effective communication on a technological platform.
Despite Market Basket’s shortcomings in these areas, Arthur T.’s sincerity, openness, and friendly persona humanizes Market Basket’s brand, which is why I believe the company will be able to bounce back with some changes, especially now that the company is in Arthur T.’s hands.
So what can we learn from this saga? To summarize, in order for a public relations plan to be successful, clear messages must effectively be communicated to the right people at the right time, so that further damage can be prevented. Secondly, utilizing social media as a platform to communicate those messages can dramatically change the outcome of such a fiasco. Lastly, consistently implementing a human touch to create brand loyalty is not only crucial, but also necessary. Thousands of people protested to bring back one man not simply his brand… why? Because people connect with people. People engage with people. Brands don’t make society work—people do. Arthur T. has an exemplary understanding of just that. Now that the power struggle has come to an end with a favorable outcome, Market Basket can expect a flourishing future…hopefully with Nutella finally back on the shelves (#win).