Say what you will about Tesco, but there is no denying that the UK’s biggest retailer has been very good at least one thing in the past few months: generating headlines. The problem is most of that press coverage was not exactly positive. In fact, it has been pretty bad.
Tesco’s trouble really started last year, when it faced a string of profit warnings amid falling sales as the British supermarket giant struggled to compete with Lidl and Aldi’s low prices, which led to the ousting of the Company’s directors. By the end of year, it went from bad to worse for Tesco when it was revealed that an accounting “error” led the Company to overstate its profits by a cool £250 million. (That number has since crept up to £263 million.) Not surprisingly, Tesco became one of the UK media’s favourite villains of 2014.
The New Year was looking like a fresh start for Tesco when investors actually responded quite well to new CEO Dave Lewis’ proposed turnaround plan. The plan, which involves slashing prices and closing stores, should save the company £250m per year. This led to a 22% increase in Tesco’s share price in the past month despite the fact that Tesco’s underlying business performance doesn’t seem to have improved significantly during this time and that the rating agency Moody’s decided to downgrade the supermarket’s credit rating to junk.
The increase is pretty good news for Tesco, especially after such a dismal 2014, and the jump in share price suggests that the market believes in Lewis’ overhaul plan. Yet a quick scan of the headlines shows that these positive developments are still being overshadowed by negative stories.
The turnaround plan has certainly been getting plenty of press coverage, but mostly because it has been revealed that 43 stores will be closing and thousands of employees will be losing their jobs. The positive story there though was that the turnaround plan has led to Tesco cutting prices, which is news that will definitely make consumers happy.
But the bad news just keeps coming. This week Tesco has again made headlines after a new investigation was launched by Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) into allegations that the supermarket has not been paying suppliers and in some cases even charging them for preferential treatment. In fairness to Tesco’s new management this is probably not something that happened under their tenure.
Another story that made headlines this week was that Tesco has agreed to pay its former CEO and CFO, who were in charge at the time of the accounting fiasco, a combined £2.1m. So-called golden goodbyes such as these tend not to go down all too well with shareholders. And really, why would they? A CEO can run a company into the ground and yet is still entitled to a big pay-out when he or she is fired. It’s certainly a good way to generate press coverage – just not the kind any company would want. But this is where Tesco actually deserves some credit – they did try to withhold the pay-out. Ultimately, the legal battle would have been pricier and that’s obviously not good for shareholders. So Tesco should really try and get that story out, along with the fact that they may even try to recover that payment.
What Tesco really demonstrates is the uphill media battle that most companies trying to make a post-scandal-comeback face. To give another example, since the financial crisis, many banks became and still remain easy targets for the media and key cultural influencers; Russell Brand springs to mind, to keep generating negative headlines and sentiment. So that’s why a company’s external message communications, and ultimately media relations are paramount. It will be a challenge, but Tesco’s promising turnaround plan and jump in share price gives the Company every opportunity to reposition itself in the media.
For now, it’s almost guaranteed that we will keep seeing Tesco headlines. It remains to be seen if these will be good or bad.