TUESDAY 1 MAY 2018 5:32 PM


Media training is a crucial skill for individuals tasked with handling external communications for an organisation, and one which most CEOs will readily focus. Missteps can be made when broadcasting live, however, especially given the proliferation of channels and platforms on which brands operate.

This was discovered yesterday by Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe, during press coverage of the merger between Sainsbury's and Asda.

In the last few days of April 2018, the biggest news to break across the UK was the proposed £12 bn ‘merger’ of the second and third largest retail operators in the UK. The deal in fact sees Sainsbury’s buy Asda from its owner Walmart, as the conglomerate recedes its UK operations to concentrate on global expansion. And while Sainsbury’s press office was quick to communicate the benefits of what it dubs 'the Combination’ to its customers, employees and the press, a faux pas by its chief executive officer calls into question the real motivations behind such a major decision.

“This is a transformational opportunity to create a new force in UK retail, which will be more competitive and give customers more of what they want now and in the future,” Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury's, said as the news broke on Saturday. “It will create a business that is more dynamic, more adaptable, more resilient and an even bigger contributor to the UK economy. Having worked at Asda before Sainsbury's, I understand the culture and the businesses well and believe they are the best possible fit. This creates a great deal for customers, colleagues, suppliers and shareholders and I am excited about the opportunities ahead and what we can achieve together.”

However, speculation has arisen around the validity of Coupe’s claims following the release of a video in which he is recorded singing ‘We’re in the money’ on ITV News – apparently unaware that cameras are still rolling. A blatant contradiction of Coupe’s initial stakeholder-oriented press statement and subsequent interviews, his allusion to the potential profitability of the deal alienates Coupe from the stakeholders on which the everyday running of his business relies. And, given that Coupe himself says he “understand[s] the culture and the businesses well,” appearing to put profit before people is presumably inconsistent with Sainsbury’s broader outlook.

As the CEO of a business reliant on everyday customer interaction, a media persona which successfully communicates a commitment to the brand purpose is paramount. Especially important is recognition of the heritage and histories of both Sainsbury’s and Asda. Both are retailers with different target markets and variations in their operations; both have proud histories in the UK retail space and customer relationships built on support and provision.

Employees too will already be worried about external threats, for example the potential impact of automation on job security and the rising cost of living in relation to the retail sector’s low wages. Coupe’s lack of judgement will do nothing to reassure an already anxious workforce, as well as potentially jeopardising recruitment and retention process. Attracting varied and talented employees will be crucial to the future of a corporate brand defined by its commitment to diversifying the UK retail space.

From Asda, the response is muted. However, the retailer recognises how far employees and stakeholders shoulder responsibility for the business’ success and welcome the proposed combination of Sainsbury’s and Asda.

Judith McKenna, president and chief executive officer of Walmart International, says, “We believe this combination will create a dynamic new retail player better positioned for even more success in a fast-changing and competitive UK market. It will unlock value for both customers and shareholders, but, at the same time, it’s the colleagues at Asda who make the difference, and this merger will provide them with broader opportunities within the retail group. We are very much looking forward to working closely with Sainsbury's to deliver the benefits of the combined business.”

Key here is the phrase, ‘it’s the colleagues at Asda who make the difference.’ The impetus to accept such big changes and work positively through the merger comes under strain when the new figurehead is seen as self-centred. The reputation of both organisations is at risk if the associated employees do not feel accepted as part of a unique, customer-oriented culture. And Roger Burnley, chief executive officer of Asda, seconds McKenna’s words.

He says, “From my six years with Asda and ten years with Sainsbury's, I know first-hand that both organisations are fortunate to employ some of the most talented and customer-focused colleagues in this market and I am excited by the opportunity of the two coming together.”

When going through periods of change, business should do their best to meet customer expectations while quelling employee concerns. The merge of Sainsbury’s and Asda might well be, as Burnley says, exciting – Coupe’s initial proclamation that the deal will first and foremost benefit UK customers and shareholders could hold true.

Nonetheless, during such turbulent times, business depends on its most senior figure to prioritise stakeholder interests. Remembering, and believing in, the face and voice of the brand is surely the first rule in media training – and something Mike Coupe would do well to remember.

For more from Communicate magazine, follow us on Twitter @Communicatemag