Sainsbury’s song and dance mistake

Who doesn’t like a show? I’ve a strong suspicion that Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe does, and has seen the acclaimed London production of the musical 42nd Street, providing him with the tune he now regrets humming when he thought he was not being filmed, ‘We’re in the money!’, in between interviews on a proposed merger with Asda.

Cue, bad headlines in coverage that could be described as close to ‘blanket’:

  • ‘Sainsbury’s CEO is singing – but ordinary people will pay the price,’ (the Guardian).
  • ‘Sainsbury’s singing boss is a kick in the face of staff who fear axe,’ (the Mail)
  • ‘Sainsbury’s CEO caught in singing blunder,’ (CNN).

And so it went on. At least his singing antics spared us the headline, ‘This Asda be a bad idea.’

42nd Street is a show about in-and-out-of-work actors over-reacting to the prospect of receiving a living wage that day – unfortunately for Coupe, that’s a nuance that didn’t come across.

It’s not too strong to say he’s damaged the chances of the deal going through.

Celebrities who err get sent to ‘rehab’ – for Coupe it should be media training, because there is so much that’s wrong with this incident.

So what would he learn from good media training he paid attention to? (I’m assuming he’s had some in the past.)

  1. Always treat a microphone as if it is on and a camera as if it is rolling – obvious, right? The media, though, do keep people waiting – in studios, in green rooms – all lined up so that the interview can start on time. Equipment makes much less noise these days, and leaving digital equipment running is cheap compared to old-style machines.
  2. You’re never ‘off the record’. There’s no such thing in law – it’s just a courtesy extended by journalists at whim. One tactic is even to have two tape recorders – one the journalist ostentatiously turns on and off, another taped under the table to be retrieved later, capturing chat between the interviewee and their accompanying assistant, PR or marketing person when the journalist is out of the room.
  3. Remember your audience – or audiences. Coupe’s were: staff worried about their jobs; Asda shoppers worried about price increases; Sainsbury’s shoppers worried about the choice of cheese going downmarket; customers who earn a fraction of Coupe and his deal-advisers; regulators and politicians wary about monopolies; and City investors who want to see someone with a sure touch in charge. If those target audiences were front of mind, it’s unlikely that this choice of tune would be.
  4. Trust is hard won. Sainsbury’s impact on philanthropy, learning and community projects reflects a commitment over many decades – the immediate impression is that some City spiv has wrested control of the supermarket, as it’s assumed by all that caught off-guard, this is the ‘real’ him.
  5. You can be natural without being off-guard – it takes practice, but we can all learn it.
  6. This moment of song is priceless – like any good tune, it will stay with him forever. He needs to find a way to wear the incident lightly. Those he surrounds himself with may see him as a sort of ‘victim’, but no-one else sees it that way.

If the outcome is a Mike Coupe who can do all this and gets all this then perhaps he can learn another song from the show – ‘Sunny side to every situation’.

Media training can help anyone avoid becoming the next Sainsbury’s boss. If you’d like to avoid Coupe’s communication problem, I hope you’ll get in touch.

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