Waitrose suffers a PR meltdown

The ADgenda: This week's worst advertising decision

Waitrose suffered a PR meltdown this week. The supermarket chain known for its squeaky clean image took a bit of a dive in the reputation stakes when Greenpeace launched a campaign calling for Waitrose to "Dump Shell". The campaign's main objection is that the oil giant has a track record for irresponsible drilling in the Arctic and that Waitrose, as a brand that prides itself on promoting green values, now seems to be jumping into bed with the enemy, namely by placing own-branded cafes at Shell garages across the country.

Environmental campaigners decided to make their feelings heard through the Waitrose Facebook page, commenting on dessert recipe links with their own take on the matter "Where's the recipe for Baked Alaska?" and "Help, my dessert has gone wrong, the edges of my arctic are melting" were just a choice few. To which Waitrose responded with a resounding "Delete". Don't like what someone's saying about you? Wipe it from the records.

This must have seemed like a quick and easy solution, and a collective sigh of relief probably went up from the Waitrose headquarters as all that bad press was removed with one effortless click. But these things do have a habit of coming back to bite bums, and the response from the commenters was a renewed scattergun approach, doubling their typing efforts to denounce the Waitrose brand. In fact, all the deletions did was to stoke the fire - encouraging ever more Facebook users to weigh in with their tuppence worth.

Did the Lord McAlpine Twitter debacle teach this PR lot nothing? Just as knee-jerk tweeting can come back to haunt you, reactionary deleting is never going to go unnoticed. In an online world where everything is archived you can't just click your way to a spotless brand reputation.

"Where's the recipe for Baked Alaska?" Photograph: Getty Images
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.