Sunday, April 6, 2008 'Tesco USA Slip Highlights the Perils of Corporate Blogging;' We Couldn't Disagree More With This Piece

"It was a rare slip by the well-oiled PR machine that is Britain's biggest retailer. Simon Uwins, the marketing director of Tesco's U.S. arm (Fresh & Easy), last week used his regular blog about tesco's Fresh Fresh & Easy convenience stores in the U.S. to reveal That Tesco is stalling the rollout of the much vaunted chain," says the lede paragaraph in a story published in today's UK newspaper.

The Telegraph piece, which we've reprinted below in italics, then goes on to essentially say Uwins made a major mistake by announcing on the Fresh & Easy corporate blog that Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market small-format, convenience-oriented grocery store chain is going to take three-month new store opening pause.

That's a load of rubbish, as our friends across the pond like to say.

What Uwins did wrong wasn't to get out in front of the new store opening pause story by announcing it himself on his blog, which we reported on Fresh & Easy Buzz on Saturday of last week after spotting it on Thursday, March 30. [We've been reading and paying close attention to Mr. Uwins' blog for a long time, and have even written about it specifically in three pieces which you can read here. There are links to the two previous corporate blog pieces on the most recent story linked here.]

The fact is, we had already heard rumors (and if we had, others likely did as well) about the new store opening pause before Uwins' March 29 announcement in the F&E corporate blog. Better to announce it yourself than let the media make the announcement for you.

Rather, Uwins and company's failure (and it's a significant one) was to not prepare properly before making the new store opening pause announcement on the Fresh & Easy corporate blog. We agree with what the food and grocery industry publication Natural~Specialty Foods Memo said in this piece which we posted on Fresh & Easy Buzz last week.

Before writing about the new store opening pause Uwins and his team should have known it would generate lots of (mostly negative) ink in the U.S. and UK press. They should have known this for two reasons:

First, because numerous serious analysts have been writing of late about Fresh & Easy's sales underperformance to date. For example, based on information from our sources, we've estimated Tesco's small-format Fresh & Easy retail grocery store chain is doing about $60,000 -to- $100,000 per-store, per-week in average gross sales.

Two other analysts have been estimating even lower numbers: $50,000 and $60,000 per-store, per-week respectively. We believe they are shooting too low, based on what our sources have told us and our analysis of their data.

Second, Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market should be able to see there's a bit of an organized media campaign going on among some fresh foods' industry folks out there who are less than happy the UK-based international retailing company brought three British companies along to the USA with it to handle Fresh & Easy's fresh produce and other fresh foods category business. You see, in the U.S. there's a long established middle-man or broker function, and since many of these folks are getting cut-out of the Tesco Fresh & Easy pie--in addition to others in the fresh foods industry--they're a bunch of these folks who are less than happy.

If, like the Telegraph argues in its lead paragraph we quoted at the start of this piece, Tesco's Fresh & Easy had a "well-oiled PR machine," it would have picked-up on this campaign by now. We're pretty well-oiled (but do squeak sometimes too) when it comes to marketing and PR, and we picked up on it some time ago through observation, analysis and talking to people.

But, the Telegraph is wrong: Tesco's Fresh & USA doesn't have a well-oiled PR machine. It has a tiny one that's not strategic or proactive enough. The retailer has done a namg up job in getting publicity for its new stores . But publicity and public relations aren't the same animal.

Don't blame Fresh & Easy's spokesman. He does about the best job he can. He isn't supported strongly enough with proper intelligence data, local knowledge, U.S. media savvy and srtategic public relations programs it appears to us.

In our observation, analysis and opinion, Fresh & Easy has neither the adequate number (not just bodies but those that fit the above mentioned criteria) of marketing and PR pros (if it does, something is seriously wrong then), and even more importantly it doesn't have anyone who appears to understand the ins-and-outs of how the U.S. business press works, while at the same time fully-understanding how the Western U.S. grocery retailing industry operates. That's essential folks.

Further, believe it or not--there are some key and significant differences between how the U.S. and UK press operate. This is even more true when it comes to the retail grocery industry in the USA.

You see valued readers, unlike in the UK who's papers cover the nation's supermarket industry closely and regularly, in the USA the opposite is generally the case: the American press covers the nation's supermarket industry infrequently and usually only when there is a problem.

Don't believe us? Search the UK daily newspaper business sections online; you will see reporters, writers and columnists who write a piece of some sort weekly about the UK supermarket industry and one or more of its key players like Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons, Waitrose and others. That's just not the case in the U.S.

Additionally, few U.S business reporters much expertise in the supermarket industry--they can't since they cover it so infrequently based on paper editorial policies. In a nutshell: It isn't considered to be an extremely important and sexy industry in America like it is in the UK.

The high tech industry, internet and media companies, investment banking--now those are sexy business topics that get near daily coverage in U.S. newspaper business sections. In contrast, major U.S. newspaper business sections like those in the New York Times, Washington Post , LA Times and others, for example, can go for a couple months without writing anything about the supermarket industry. Even the Wall Street Journal can go a couple weeks without doing a story about the industry.

In today's piece the suggests one result of Simon Uwins' posting of the new store opening pause in the F&E corporate blog is that Tesco stock dropped the day after the reports hit the UK papers. That is true.

However, what the paper doesn't mention in today's piece is that Tesco stock regained that lost ground in just a few days. In other words, Uwins' blog post has no real or material effect on the share price of Tesco stock.

Lastly, the thesis of the piece in today's Telegraph is that Uwins made a major mistake by being "too open" in his March 29 blog post announcement about the three-month pause. Again, that's a load of rubbish.

Had this story came out, drip by drip, which it would have if Uwins' didn't announce it himself, the international and U.S. press would be castigating Uwins and company for letting the news leak rather than making an announcement themselves or giving the daily business press (we would have been ticked too) the full and straight story.

You can't have it both ways though.

Any person with experience in media relations vis-a-vis announcements like the new store opening pause will tell you it's always best to get out in front of the story and make the announcement yourself, rather than let the first news of such an event come from the press, or a competitor. Hang a lantern on it a wise man used to always say.

Uwins' failure wasn't to get out in front of the story and post it in the Fresh & Easy corporate blog--that was a good, smart, sound PR strategy; but it was only half a loaf.

He didn't bake the other half of the public relations loaf in our opinion.

What Uwins and company failed to do is have a public relations program--like the publication Natural~Specialty Foods Memo talks about in this piece, "locked and loaded" so that the grocery chain could remain out in front of the story and be able to offer additional information to reporters for their stories--rather then allow the business press to nearly all basically quote the same two (non-Tesco) sources for their stories almost exclusively. [Read a representative sample of last week's stories on the Fresh & Easy new store opening pause in the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, a number of UK-based daily newspapers and other U.S papers' business sections and you will understand the source point we're making above.]

Further, as part of this "locked and loaded" public relations strategy, Team Uwins should have had prepared, and been ready to fire off at will as needed and then follow-up on, at least three key news stories or pegs like Natural~Specialty Foods Memo outlines in its piece last week, so the grocer could cut the new store opening pause news new cycle short, as well as use the opportunity to better position the company in the consumers' mind.

For that--and not the transparency and getting out in front of a story that was going to come out soon anyway--it's fair to criticize Mr. Uwins in our analysis and opinion. But to suggest, like the Telegraph does in its piece today, that Uwins made a major mistake by being too open on the F&E corporate blog is...well...just hogwash, and really misses the forest from the trees.

Today's piece from the is reprinted below:

Tesco's USA slip highlights the perils of corporate blogging 06/04/2008

Companies are using 'web logs' to talk to customers. But they can be too open, warns Dominic White

It was a rare slip by the well-oiled PR machine that is Britain's biggest retailer. Simon Uwins, the marketing director of Tesco's US arm, last week used his regular blog about Tesco's Fresh & Easy convenience stores in the US to reveal that Tesco is stalling the roll-out of the much-vaunted chain.

On Monday the news lopped £900m off Tesco's market value after
The Sunday Telegraph spotted Uwins' blog, prompting investors to fret that Tesco could be the latest British company to come unstuck across the pond.

It was evidence, if it were needed, that business web logs should come with a corporate health warning.

Some company blogs, such as those by Google and Innocent, the drinks company, have won plaudits, but some businesses have leapt into blogosphere with all the grace of grandad at the disco, while some company bosses have been guilty of the ultimate blogging crime: using ghost-writers.

Web auction giant eBay meanwhile has hired social media veteran Richard Brewer-Hay in an experiment designed to repair the company's battered reputation amid the cacophony of complaint from eBay merchants over the site's upcoming fee and policy changes. In a risky bid to dispel concerns that they were not listening to users' feedback, eBay has invited Brewer-Hay to pen an unedited daily blog called eBay Ink about what he uncovers as he moves freely around the $42bn (£21.2bn) company. It promises to be a fascinating experiment.

No British company has tried anything so daring yet but Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose, concurs that blogs should be frank and unfettered by PR guff. On January 1, the robust-looking shopkeeper began blogging about his efforts to lose 30cm from his waistline by Christmas.

The Grocer's Blog has entertaining entries including one on his spring holiday in Dinan: "I now believe The People's Republic of France to be the last Communist state in the world. On my visit before last, the taxi drivers were on strike. This time round, newspaper distributors, amongst others, decided to walk out, meaning I was unable to do the Telegraph Sudoku with a cup of coffee on holiday."

Fellow retailer Charles Dunstone admits that he has stopped the blog he launched two years ago to coincide with the launch of Carphone's TalkTalk broadband offering.

As the launch drowned under a deluge of customer complaints, Dunstone's entries became increasingly apologetic and less frequent, thus breaking a key rule of blogging: regular entries.

Instead Carphone has created a site called TalkTalk Members which provides an interactive forum for its broadband users, satisfied and otherwise, and gives hourly updates from engineers about how different parts of the network are performing. "I thought the only way to convince people about what we were doing was to tell them the whole truth," he says.

"We have radical transparency within TalkTalk, it is beyond blogging - we don't spin any info for our users who can write anything they like."

Such transparency is not without risks. Just ask Tesco.

Fresh & Easy Buzz editor's note: The Telegraph piece mentions the "grocers blog," which is written by Mark Price, the Managing Director (CEO UK style) of Britain's upscale Waitrose supermarket chain. You might enjoy reading these two pieces about Price and his Waitrose blog, which is on the grocery chain's website.

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