May 7, 2015
Sainsbury Chief Headed to Jail
Things just went from bad to much, much worse for Mike Coupe, head of British supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s. Coupe was just handed a two-year jail sentence in Egyptian courts for “attempting to seize checks from Egyptian businesses sixteen years ago. At the time, Sainsbury’s was trying to break into the region. According to reports, Egyptian courts said they convicted Coupe because he is the most senior employee of the company. When Coupe chose to skip the trial, he was convicted in absentia. The conviction won’t mean much as long as Coupe steers clear of Egypt, but, even still, the conviction is a prime example of how unfair both legal and public relations issues can become.
Unfair? Yes, definitely. How else can you describe being convicted of a crime based on the actions of a company that, at the time did not employ you. That’s right, Coupe was convicted even though he had not met the complainants and he was in London – not employed by Sainsbury’s – at the time of the incidents.
Sainsbury’s PR team has fired back, calling the claims – and the conviction – groundless and promising to appeal. Of course, from a PR perspective, the conviction just pushes more pressing business into an unforgiving public light.
First, Sainsbury’s foray into Egypt turned out to be a disaster. The company tried to find a place in the market but failed, at a cost of 111 million pounds and a loss of 100 stores. Of course, that was sixteen years ago…but it gets worse. Amidst falling sales and dropping stock value, the company was expected to cut hundreds of jobs across the board. Even the most frivolous lawsuits bring these other very real and very painful items to the surface.
That’s the PR lesson here. Nothing happens in a vacuum. If something goes wrong while something else bad is happening or on the heels of another PR crisis, the whole is always worse than the sum of its parts. The two negative stories – if not stopped – can feed on each other, creating a self-sustaining wave of negative PR that is difficult to stop. The earlier your PR team can get out ahead of the story and stop it, the better it will be. Wait too long, and it may be too late to do anything at all. At that point, your brand is at the mercy of the news cycle and your customers’ attention spans. Don’t ever let it come to that.