Damned if you do … how a corporate story can help Corporate Story

I was at a seminar this morning about corporate storytelling. Evening Standard journalist, Anthony Hilton, suggested that PR teams often over-react to what should be seen as low-level criticism, especially online.

His thesis was that even intelligent people can’t remember yesterday’s newspaper headline. Therefore reacting to every little negative is a waste of time because ultimately it will have no impact. Wait until it is clear that you have a major trending issue that will have lasting impact on your reputation before doing something about it.

I am sure he was being a little mischievous. And then I thought about Asda’s little local difficulty yesterday.

Asda has withdrawn a Halloween outfit it was selling online as a “mental patient fancy dress costume”. This followed public criticism on Twitter and from charities working in the mental health field.

Asda did it well enough, offering “sincere apologies for the offence it has caused” (not some mealy-mouthed “sorry if anybody has been offended”) and making a “very sizeable donation” to mental health charity Mind.

Storm in a teacup; quickly nipped in the bud; good issues management. Its PR team is right to believe that if it let all these ‘minor’ issues go unchallenged as Anthony Hilton suggests, then the public would begin to define for themselves what kind of company is Asda. And that might be far removed from Asda’s sense of itself.

But Asda’s approach to the costume issue also raised hackles with their audiences. Tweets asked why Asda was “pandering to the professionally offended”; individuals suffering mental health issues said they were not in the least offended by the costume; others suggested that “it wasn’t the fancy dress costume that caused offence. It’s the crass description… What was wrong with #Zombie?”

Asda has a very clear marketing story – Asda saves you money. But I’m less clear as to Asda’s ‘corporate story’.

If hypothetically I understood that Asda has a deep and abiding sense of social purpose over-riding its commercial interest, I could easily surmise and understand why it will always “pander to the professionally offended”. I’m not going to bother negatively tweeting my upset at their response to the costume issue.

So maybe Asda could look to identify and articulate a clear, concise, consistent and compelling corporate story about itself. Then maybe Anthony Hilton would be right and Asda would not need to engage in so much time-consuming tactical PR.

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