Asda’s “Black Friday” debacle in Northern Ireland was such a comprehensive PR disaster that it is worthy of further analysis – if only because it is remarkable how often large, well-resourced businesses display such a lack of understanding of how to deal with crises.
It appears to demonstrate a level of incompetence in media relations which, on the face of it appears incomprehensible.
To briefly reprise: the company decided to replicate the American tradition of creating a “Black Friday” shopping spree by widely advertising a range of goods that would be on sale at their stores at massively discounted prices from 8 am last Friday morning.
The campaign was backed by a significant advertising campaign and PR push. The objective was to create a shopping frenzy to stimulate pre-Christmas sales.
The day before the sale PR people representing Asda lobbied Wendy Austin’s flagship BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback Show to be given airtime to promote the sale.
Promotional activity was effective in so far as crowds were beginning to gather outside stores across Northern Ireland in the early hours of Friday morning.
But when the “sale” began it immediately became clear that there were very limited numbers of goods on offer, and in some stores at least some goods advertised were not available at all.
The result was predictable: as it became clear that hundreds of shoppers had queued for hours and were about to be disappointed angry scenes developed. In the West Belfast outlet this descended into chaos, with one woman who had queued from midnight, suffering a broken arm in the fracas. Shoppers in several stores reported that there was no security and that management did not make themselves available to deal with complaints.
Within minutes the story was breaking across social media and making headlines in the regional press. The BBC went big onit, with Talkback devoting half an hour to the issue. Wendy Austin pointed out that although Asda had been very keen to talk about Black Friday the previous day, they were refusing to go on the airwaves to talk about the carnage. Thirty minutes of extremely damaging publicity resulted, with some callers stating they would never shop at Asda again. A statement was read out from the company which characterised the sale as a success. “This is the first time Black Friday has been done on this scale in stores across the UK and our customers were eager to take advantage of the great offers available to them…”
It struck entirely the wrong note. Meanwhile Asda itself which was tweeting merrily about Black Friday the day before was getting traduced both on traditional and social media across the UK. It was a classic disaster. There was even talk of potential prosecution for the company for allegedly advertising goods which were not on sale.
So what went wrong, and why and what should the company learn from this?
First, when you are planning a major event you have to do a thorough risk analysis and put in place communications strategies should things go wrong. So were adequate numbers of goods despatched to Northern Ireland stores? What was the company going to do and say if this turned out not to be the case or if some goods were missing? What measures were taken to ensure good order amongst shoppers and preventing a frenzy if large crowds turned out?
And if things did go wrong what was the company going to say, and how fast could it get its message out? Big retailers have large customer bases and the widespread use of social media means that negative feedback can reach many thousands in seconds and reputations can suffer huge damage unless companies are in a position to respond quickly.
All of what happened was easily foreseeable and yet it does not appear to have been prepared for.
And that’s before we get on to the issue of who was going to deal with any potential negative comments. The company had prepared someone to go on radio to promote the event, but could not respond when asked to put someone up to explain what went wrong. That is a cardinal sin. Every organisation should have people trained to deal with crisis communications. When something bad happens you cannot tolerate a situation where executives are all hiding under their desks, waiting for the storm to pass. The public know when this is happening: it just makes a bad situation so much worse.
There is, of course, another potential explanation for the affair. Given experiences in the USA it was highly conceivable that there would be pandemonium in stores over here. Could it be that this was envisaged and that the company might have thought that would be a good thing and it was just that they hadn’t quite anticipated the level of mayhem that resulted or else felt that that was not their responsibility?
If so they are taking consumers for fools. Everyone likes a bargain and enjoys the sales. Nobody likes being manipulated into queuing for hours for goods which are no longer on the shelves. Nobody likes being stripped of their dignity trying to get a good deal during recession. People don’t forget this sort of thing very easily. Nor should they. Asda played to the worst aspects of human nature and are reaping the consequences for a shameful, cynical and manipulative exercise. It will be interesting to see if they repeat it next year.