Saying Nothing When Under Attack Is Not A PR Strategy.

Many people know there is a lot I admire about Woolworths and the way they run their businesses. But – like all successful businesses – they are far from perfect. An example of a misguided action – or more correctly lack of action – has emerged in the last few weeks with their handling of a continued attack from so-called ‘consumer vigilantes’ over the perceived market dominance of both Woolworths and Coles in the supermarket sector. At heart this is a propaganda war being waged by yet another passionate interest group.

Interest groups are incredibly skilled at propaganda and have a willing enabler in a media that is voracious in its appetite for content that appeals to mass audiences and appears explosive.

In the most recent example the ‘consumer vigilantes’ used a rather spurious comparison of supermarket prices in several international markets to create a headline claim that Australians were paying up to 40 per cent more for our supermarket groceries than other countries consumers. You would have assumed that Woolworths – armed with a multitude of facts rather than a contrived ‘research study’ – would have shot this comparison down as a clear case of comparing apples with oranges and exposed the propaganda for what it was.

Woolworths distributes its supermarket products to a population comparable to greater London spread over a land-mass similar to Western Europe. This market is isolated in the Southern Hemisphere and reliant on locally sourcing around 90 per cent of its food products. Those products are produced to meet Australian standards, under Australian labor costs and on it goes. Tesco on the other hand can source milk from Latvia, transported in trucks from Poland with low-wage workers out of Czechoslovakia to a population of 66 million. And there are justifiable reasons as to why this is a good thing for them. You simply can’t compare other markets out of context.

But that’s not the point. The point is that in a propaganda war where you have a motivated interest group chipping away at your business, saying nothing is not a PR strategy. And that was Woolworth’s response. No rebuttal. No engagement. Silence. Tiger Woods has just tried the same approach and look at how that is turning out for him.

Outside natural disasters, there is no such thing as ‘news’. Every item has a press conference or a media release and is therefore organized propaganda based on an agenda being pushed. No retail business enjoys true loyalty. Only relevance. Continue to prove your relevance to your customers every day and you will continue to enjoy their custom. But every reputation can be tarnished by skilled adversaries with an agenda that truly motivates them and no matter how successful you have been, in a transactional world nobody loves you unconditionally.

Like a marriage, you have to keep working at it proving every day that you add value. Never rest on reputation – it is a fuel tank that rapidly evaporates. Counter every criticism with a confident – not arrogant or defensive – rebuttal. Create positive propaganda of your own. Be confident. Make the claims about the great things you do. In retail today it is not enough just to add value to people’s lives. You must be acknowledged by them as a genuine added value contributor to their lives and those of the people they care about. That takes communication – not silence.