The supermarkets are going great guns for PR stunts that turn into tabloid splashes. But are such tactics boring the public and damaging brand credibility asks Karen Dempsey Forget the price wars. The propaganda wars played out on the pages of the tabloids are top of the supermarkets' agenda at the moment. With the media's unrelenting appetite for consumer affairs stories, the supermarkets' PR machines are going great guns and not a week goes by without some publicity stunt or other hitting the headlines. Over the past month we've seen all the top multiples vying to become supreme consumer champion. Sainsbury promised a scheme to provide safer eggs. Asda championed lower petrol prices. Safeway ran a dirty tricks campaign against Asda. Tesco's stance on pounds and ounces was splattered all over the papers. Tesco's imperial campaign ­ acknowledged by many in the PR consultancy world as a real coup and a brilliant piece of opportunistic PR ­ was publicly condemned by its rivals as a cynical stunt and a calculated attempt to grab a headline. An executive from a rival supermarket says: "Wrapping yourself in the flag to score a few cheap points with the tabloids and banging the anti-Brussels drum is not tremendously helpful." Yet, privately, supermarket executives were kicking themselves for not having thought of it first ­ and there would most certainly have been internal inquisitions as to why not. A former PR manager at a major multiple said: "In the propaganda wars, it's a matter of who's the cleverest at seeing an opportunity and putting it out. Supermarkets use external companies to track their favourability ratings in the media and use that to demonstrate the effectiveness of a particular campaign and how they're shaping up against the competition. They watch each other avidly and get irked if one gets coverage for something the others are doing anyway." If this conjures up an image of PR executives staying up to all hours trying to magic up the latest wacky stunt, or brainstorming in smoky rooms trying to find ways to outsmart the competition, this is partly true. Phil Reed, a director of PR consultancy Countrywide Porter Novelli, says: "The silly season for supermarkets is 12 months a year. It's all about awareness and making sure your name is front of mind when consumers are making the decision about where to shop." So how do they come up with these stunts first to stay ahead of the competition? Ask PR managers in a multiple press office and they will respond indignantly that it's a trade secret and if you go public with it you'll lose your edge ­ as if it were as secret as Barr's recipe for Irn-Bru or the contents of the Kentucky Fried Chicken coating. In reality, it's not some trade secret but rather more mundane and pedestrian. Any PR person worth their salt will have established a good internal communications infrastructure and will liaise daily with marketing teams and category managers, particularly those involved in new product development. And instead of just announcing there's a new line coming out, they'll come up with a wacky way of promoting it. There could be a glut of a product that PR needs to create demand for. Often it is a question of capitalising on a mood or taking advantage of something that's in the news already and latching on to that ­ such as Heinz did when the England football team were allowed to eat Baked Beans again. And, more often these days, it is a case of working with a newspaper to work up a story together for an "exclusive". One gets the impression the supermarkets are just out to make a lot of noise, often just for the sake of it. The cynical among us would say this noise is becoming deafening and we want to turn the sound down a bit because we can't hear ourselves think through all this wackiness and silliness. "It's like the Pope using excommunication in the Middle Ages. If you use it too often, the significance gets diluted and consumers become wearily cynical if yet another publicity stunt is blaring across the tabloids," says Kevin Hawkins, director of communications at Safeway. There's also no point in just being me-too, you've also got to be first with something to get the kudos of it. Jackie Cooper PR, for example, was the first to use a light projection on Battersea Power Station for the infamous Wonderbra campaign in 1994. That hogged the headlines because it was an upfront brand doing an upfront act. But since then, it's easy to become a wee bit weary of seeing yet another brand doing yet another light projection. Robert Phillips, founding partner of Jackie Cooper PR, says the problem for supermarkets is that we're all stunted out. "Supermarket stunts are beginning to merge into one. People shop within a portfolio of supermarkets but it is always going to be a commoditised purchase. Supermarkets are trying so hard to differentiate their brands that it is difficult to recall, for example, if it is Asda or Sainsbury doing the singles nights initiative. All the stunts appear to be commoditised, too." He says that while clients' eyes light up at the thought of blowing tens of thousands on a stunt, he advises them to invest in a longer term media relations campaign. "Brand credibility is at stake here and a stunt for stunt's sake is spotted a mile off by a punter." Supermarkets are major employers and they affect everyone's lives in some way, so they are generally always going to be newsworthy. But this attempt to be first to press with the latest stunt sometimes smacks of desperation. And is there any substance behind it? Have the propaganda wars degenerated into a question of totting up how many column inches they have occupied this week, or is the stunt a core part of the supermarkets' business strategy? Those crafted in stunt practice say the top stunts are those that not only create awareness of an initiative but also underline what a brand is about. Hawkins says: "Any PR initiative has to be consistent with the brand values of the retailer. It has to bring the brand alive in the minds of consumers and reinforce what it stands for. Also, stunts have to be spaced and made relevant to your basic offering." What is fundamental, however, is that whatever noise they are producing in the press has to be echoed at local store level. You can't make claims you can't substantiate ­ and this can often be the danger when an initiative comes from central office that local stores are not informed about and have no time to act on. Jonathan Choat, chairman of Nexus Choat, says: "So you have a phoney war being conducted through the media, but does the local store live up to it? The headlines contribute towards the imagery of a retail brand ­ but it is the experience in store and the culture in local supermarkets that really cements the relationship." Teresa Wickham, chief executive of TWA Communications, agrees. "Big announcements always have to be backed up or a real credibility gap will start to emerge. If what you promise isn't delivered instore, then you'll get cynicism from consumers and they'll feel they're being led up the garden path." So with all supermarkets vying for pole position, who, in the opinion of the industry, is emerging victorious? Heading the pack is Tesco. Since Sir Jack Cohen's days there has been no doubt Tesco is well aware of the value of PR and publicity. Chief executive Terry Leahy is no stranger to using the press to get his message and brand values across and has been successful in building the brand through PR. The perception is that its stunts back up the customer service image it has created. Sainbury is still seen as being slightly on the snooty side, preferring not to stoop to the level of stunts, still dogged by its bureaucratic past, and not nearly nimble enough to outsmart its rivals and set the tabloid news agenda. But it has recently had more success in placing stories pressing the "good food" angle. Asda is the multiple all the others are scared of. It is always first off the starting blocks with the latest headline grabbing initiative, and is consistent in banging the pricing drum. Safeway used to do more stunts years ago when it was pursuing a family friendly market positioning. It has since been working hard in getting the City on its side and getting its share price back up ­ although its overt pursuit of publicity in its current dirty tricks campaign has hit a sour note. Somerfield has been in the doldrums for such a long time, it is harder for it to get positive messages across. One source says: "Generally when your financial results aren't great there's little point in doing positive PR stories because the press will always put the in a desperate bid to revitalise its fortunes...' kind of spin on it." But the supermarket that has consistently outmanoeuvred its rivals in the last 18 months is Iceland. Phillips says Iceland is head and shoulders above the rest. "With stories on GM, online retailing and home delivery, Iceland has been successful in commanding the news agenda. In comparison, other supermarkets' promises look hollow and come across as slightly vacuous." It has also left them spitting. Iceland has left the others trailing on the GM debate, and has achieved much from one of the biggest PR offensives of the last couple of years. Iceland's PR manager Hilary Berg says: "With GM, at the beginning the directors stuck their necks out and it could have gone either way. They took a big commercial risk but it had a business case behind it and it has paid off with more consumers coming through the doors. Our PR is strategic, it's not about puffery. PR planning runs alongside business planning, so PR is closely tied in with our business strategy." In theory, when it comes to stunts that go wrong, no one will get to hear about them. Because no one turns up, therefore no one writes about it. Phillips says: "There must be a graveyard of buried props beneath Leicester Square where lone brand managers have stood waiting and no one bothered to turn up for the photocall." But there is also the danger that their wacky efforts are becoming irritating. Longevity is the key to giving a story legs and making it run and run. But what trips it up is the desperate urge to be seen as the consumer champion at all costs. The recent CWS campaign that banned advertising to kids and branded it a "food crime" left a bad taste in the mouths of many in the industry. The CWS defends it as part of its ethical stance to be on the side of the consumer, that this approach is consistent with its history of campaigning on issues such as hygiene and labelling. But, as Wickham says, "this seems like publicity for publicity's sake and it's not a good thing to attack the industry". It's also not a good thing to send newsdesk faxes buzzing with your latest press release before you've properly thought things through. What has issued from Asda's press office has been less than impressive of late. Take its statement it is banning Belgian pâté so it could be seen to be protesting at the European ban on the export of live English pigs. Even though we're in the silly season, Asda's attempt at publicity only succeeded in getting up journalists' noses. A consumer affairs reporter at one of the tabloids says: "The Wal-Martisation of Asda has made it seem more desperate for headlines these days ­ but when is everyone going to start seeing through that? "We are getting wise to it and we're not going to run with everything the Asda press office can throw at us. "The pâté campaign, for example, is just a kneejerk reaction and shows little thought or understanding of the real issues." Sounds as though supermarkets shouldn't take their newsworthiness for granted ­ as too much puff and they could find themselves blowing their own houses down. {{COVER FEATURE }}