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S2E2: Communicating for a supermarket during a global pandemic

Chris Lowe, Senior Director of Corporate Affairs at Asda talks to Daisy about what happens at a supermarket when a global pandemic hits, how Covid has changed his relationships with MPs, and the innovations he'll be keeping when the pandemic is over. Key takeaways include: 

  • First, be realistic. In many situations the chances of your organization pleasing 100% of your stakeholders may be zero. So how else can you judge success? Are there better indicators that you can use to understand performance?

  • Second, be wary of the signals you are sending. As Asda improved its Covid security, MPs and civil servants began to assume that they were relaxing the rules. This shows how important it is to look out for hints of the proxy measures that your stakeholders use to assess your performance – something that you should be picking up in stakeholder audits but you will also need to be attentive to in your everyday conversations.

  • Third: Be thoughtful about how you deploy your team. Chris told us that if he could repeat 2020 he would be faster to draft in support from other areas of the business in order to safeguard the wellbeing of his team.

  • Finally, we could all do with remembering Chris’ exhortation to pick up the phone – it really can make all of the difference.


Find the whole episode here:



Or read the transcript in full here:


S2E1 - How it felt to work at Zoom in 2020


Daisy Powell-Chandler 00:07

Welcome to Why Everybody Hates You, an audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think and feel about your organization, then you are in the right place. I'm your host, reputation coach Daisy-Powell Chandler. 2020 was a pretty wild year for all of us. And for this series, I'll be interviewing communicators from organizations that had an especially weird time of it. We started the season by talking to Charlotte Holloway from Zoom, the company that became a verb during 2020. This week, I'm bringing you an interview with Chris Lowe, Senior Director for Public Affairs at Asda supermarkets. And of course, I started by asking him why everybody hates Asda.


Chris Lowe 01:06

I'm not quite sure that everybody hates us. But let's just go with the flow of that question. I think that, you know, clearly we do get criticism from time to time. Everything at supermarkets is on such a large scale: 640 shops, 140,000 colleagues, and each week we have 15 million visits. And so there's 15 million chances to get this wrong each and every week. And it's human interaction. So we do make mistakes. And quite often in my job, I get letters and emails from politicians where things have gone wrong, and their constituents go to the MP, to ask them to intervene. And certainly over the COVID area, there's been a lot of queries about social distancing. And, you know, people are genuinely worried. Because if you think about it at the moment, we just don't see crowds of people at all, the only time that we really see crowds of people is when we go to the supermarket. And so people are genuinely concerned that there might be too many people. And we know all the range of things that we've put in place to do it, which obviously we tell to the politicians, and then there's some sort of broader issues along the enforcement of masks which we have, along with others, said that we'll be doing more enforcing. Our chief executive says that every single day he'll get 100 emails from from customers saying that we're not enforcing the masks enough. And he'll get 100 emails from customers saying how dare we break the civil liberties and enforce masks. So yeah, that's how things are. But I think overall, the final thing I'd say on this is that we do track what people say about us. And last quarter, I had tracked about MPs, the tweets that MPs had mentioned Asda. 54% of them were positive, there was about 36% that was neutral and only 10% that were negative. And Twitter is, you know, tends to be quite a negative environment. I think we'll take those statistics.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 03:32

Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good score actually from from Twitter, certainly. I'm really interested in that point about 15 million interactions, 15 million chances for things to go wrong. That must have been quite a big switch in mindset. I think comms practitioners are trained a lot of the time to think that any negative feedback is a bad thing. How did you switch your mindset to get to the point where you were able to be philosophical about the fact you can't please all of the people all of the time?


Chris Lowe 04:02

Well, it is really different working in this company and in this sector. And prior to this, I worked for a consultancy for a number of years. And it was you know, part of our job to try to get politicians interested in our clients affairs and our clients companies and try to get them to have a meeting with the chief executive or whatever. You come into Asda - and I'm sure it's the same with the other supermarkets - and you are sort of fending them off. Because Asda is such a big name that everybody wants to come and find out what we're doing. And it is important because between the four of us we speak to everybody across the country each week. It is a big, important area. In normal times, we don't get a massive number of emails from MPs. Probably four or five a week, probably that sort of level either directly to me and my team or to our chief executive. But at the height of COVID, in March and April, we were getting 100 a week. Some real heartfelt problems in there. You know, we were doing our best but you can't do everything. And I think that's part of the message I give to my team. We're used to working remotely because we cover all the different Parliaments and assemblies. But we used to have a weekly catch up by zoom. And we brought it into the daily just to keep in touch. But I realized afterwards, after quite a short time, that actually it was really important for well being because we had to ditch everything else. You had to ditch all the practice stuff because we had to respond to these MP letters. In normal times, if you reply to an MP within a week, that's great, that's good service. In COVID, we thought that if we didn't reply within one day or two days, then we were letting people down because things were moving so quickly, and people had real issues. And it was tough, because you know, we were feeding the nation, we were making priority slots available on our home shopping, our home delivery service. But that was who the government had defined as being clinically extremely vulnerable. Of course, there's a lot of people not quite in that category, who went to their MP to say, yeah, I'm eight months pregnant, I've already got one child who's got disabilities, I'm on my own, I can't possibly get to the supermarket, can you get me a priority slot? And the answer, of course, was no, because we've got a restricted number. And actually, there are...well, in the end, we ended up supporting 200,000 clinically extremely vulnerable customers. And there just simply wasn't enough room for everybody who...but you know, my team, we're having to respond to that. And on one side, you know what the company's answer is, but you're thinking, well, if that was my sister, I wouldn't be happy with that response. And that's tough, that's tough when you can't give the answer that you want to give, and that the politician wants to give and what the customer in a perfect world would receive. But of course, it wasn't a perfect world over the last 12 months. And in that very fast evolving moment, you're dealing with that huge amount of email traffic, there's a lot more stress going on, you're suddenly doing all these extra meetings as well. How do you triage? How were you calculating which of these are the big reputation risks I should be worried about? And which are the ones that fall into that 'you can't please all of the people'. We did do a triage, but it was between those who were responded to within 24 hours and those who responded to within 48 hours. I mean, it really was that severe. We didn't really get anybody writing to us during that period where a one week response time would have been acceptable. We could respond to people quickly, because actually, there were firm policies in place. And actually, although we will get a lot of people, the issues were very similar. So there was one, the biggest one was about how do we get our constituents to get one of your priority passes. And the second biggest was social distancing, and safety in stores. Actually, once you've got the policy together on that, you can respond quite quickly. The ones that are less able to respond are things where something specific has happened in store where they need to have to talk to a store manager. And inevitably things take longer on those to respond to those issues.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 09:19

Obviously, some of those are very different from the normal run of the letters that you're getting through and the emails that you're processing. Have those persisted? How much is your workload different now than it was 12 months ago?


Chris Lowe 09:35

They have persisted. It hasn't gone back to the normal levels and the low level of correspondence. And we get far more now about social distancing as I said earlier, I think that's because this is the only area where we come into contact with lots of people. The issues about the priority passes have gone away. And each of them needs to be investigated because we know the policies and we know that over this year, we've added in process after process that should have increased the COVID security of our stores. If someone says, we went into x store and the security guard on the front door wasn't there, or was not wearing a mask, or was very rude to me, and demanded to see a doctor's note to prove I was exempt from masks, which has happened, but isn't our policy, then clearly, we've got to go through to the store to find out exactly what happened and what was their recollection. And in that case, give a write back and write an apology to our customer and to the MPs constituent.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 10:53

How long do you think it will be before it does start to settle back to normal? Or do you think this has been a permanent change in the relationship that you have with those stakeholders?


Chris Lowe 11:04

It's been interesting looking at how the relationship has evolved. In the first few months of this crisis, every letter we got from an MP started off with 'Can I first thank you and all your colleagues for all the amazing things you're doing'. By the summer that had gone and it was more irritation: 'Why are you not doing these things in store, which is causing problems for my constituents'. And there was no recognition that actually we might be trying very hard. So that was interesting how that evolved. We're now in between those two areas, actually. People aren't as forthright in their condemnation, but they're not full of praise for us. And it's got back to a more sensible level of asking us to respond to the concerns that their constituents have had. But things have changed, just within the week, just within the supermarket sector. The most obvious changes on how much demand there is for home shopping. You know, we can trace back our first home delivery, probably not online at that time, but home delivery, about 20 years ago. So it took us 20 years to get up to 7% of our sales through an online through our home delivery route. And then it took us three weeks to double that, because suddenly everybody wanted to do it. Now if you've been reticent before, doing home shopping, grocery home shopping, because you didn't know how the technology worked, or you thought you'd get all the rubbishy lettuces at the bottom of the pile, or you thought that everything got substituted. And then you went through a process where for whatever reason, you had to go and get home deliveries and suddenly realize that, oh, the technology is very easy. And it means I can do the shopping list very effectively. And when it comes there's no substitutions. And actually, because the pickers are going round first thing in the morning before everybody else gets the best lettuces. You sit there and think, why am I wasting two hours on a Saturday morning, my precious weekend, going round Asda? I might as well keep to this. So although we have doubled the number of people, number of slots available, we're now up to about 850,000 slots a week with home deliveries. The demand still outstrips the supply. So we're doing all we can to continue to do that. The other side of things is that if I was doing this a year ago, I might have said there was 18 or 19 million visits a year - sorry a week. And now I said there's 15 million visits a week. And that's because actually in that part, people have gone back a decade or two decades, and more people are doing the one big family weekly shop rather than coming in four or five times a week. And that's an interesting development. And that's interesting from my colleagues who are doing the retail operations about how that works. So people are coming in less often but getting bigger baskets when they do come in. So we moved a bit away from the public policy side of things but interesting aspects of supermarket life these days.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 14:43

Really interesting again, and of course rings a lot of bells in terms of personal experience. We all have those anecdotes about trying to get online slots. I wonder if that's an interesting aspect as well of working on the public affairs side of a supermarket. Unlike in some sectors where you talk to MPs, and they have privileged access, or they have a very different viewpoint from customers, in supermarkets it's an interesting one, because they're all customers of some sort of supermarket. So do you think that the experience of working with MPs for a supermarket is very different from working in public affairs at another company?


Chris Lowe 15:24

Yes, I do. Well, for two reasons. One is that they have got personal experience. And quite often we get letters from a local MP who will put at the end, and this reflects my experience of being in your store too. You know, that's fine. And the other thing is that they know that it impacts every one of their constituents. You know, if you're working for a tech company on a on a particular brand of phone, then it's only going to be a small proportion. So it [supermarkets] does affect everybody. And so everybody has got that experience. But it's also one of those interesting things about when you know something about it, but you might not get it right. I did a piece of work about three or four weeks ago, because we were hearing from government that people were saying that supermarkets were clearly not taking COVID as seriously because there's no queues anymore, compared to March and April, and so they were obviously taking it much more seriously then. So I did a piece of work collating all this together, which was sort of a mythbuster on why we don't have queues anymore and certainly don't have queues for an hour. And it starts with that first thing of we've got 25% fewer visits. Each week, we've doubled the number of people getting home delivery. So last week, we served 800,000 shoppers without them coming anywhere near our stores, we're using scan and go more in stoes - that's gone up 20% this year. And just remembering back to the start of COVID, where actually there was a lot...one of the main pinch points is around the checkout, because we could only open every other one for social distancing reasons. And even when we got the perspex because there was a countrywide shortage of perspex because everybody needed it, we could only get enough to do half our checkout. So it was still...you could we could only open half of them. It's really hard to remember all those things. But you put all those together. And oh, and and the other thing is that there's nobody clicking on the front door anymore. You know, there were people clicking them in and clicking them out. And we get complaints from MP saying 'you're not counting people in' and I'll go, 'no, instead of somebody who's actually supposed to be a security guard and doing other things clicking people in and clicking people out, we've actually got some technology now in the roof, which is doing this far more efficiently'. Yes, we know that your constituent can't see this, this security guard clicking them in and out. But let us assure you that we do know how many people are in our store. In fact, we know it far better now using technology rather than humans. So it's interesting that it is all those things that why would anybody know? So we have to pull it all together to to demonstrate why the absence of a queue doesn't mean that we're not COVID secure anymore.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 18:38

I think that's fascinating. And it just goes to show that sometimes the the indicators that you're doing a good job are not necessarily people seeing it all run smoothly. Sometimes it can be quite good for people to see that there are some hiccups in order to understand how much hard work is going in.


Chris Lowe 18:54

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 18:56

I also think that's symbolic of something I wanted to pick your brains on, which is that normal KPIs kind of flew out of the window for many firms over the past year. You obviously have quite a clear competitive set in other supermarkets, but presumably, you're also benchmarking against some other organizations. How have you been coping this year in judging how you're doing against those competitors?


Chris Lowe 19:19

Well I mentioned earlier the survey of Twitter, and so that piece of work that was done for me was looking at our competitors. And we always look at Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons and ourselves as the main four supermarkets who we benchmark ourselves selves against. We still do some MP surveys and some MSP surveys as well - independently done - looking at approval rates. And that's been really interesting in 2020 and thinking particularly in the Scottish Parliament where our reputation has really gone up and our detractors have gone really far down. And then in other areas, we haven't even touched on Brexit yet have we. But, yeah, we've been doing a lot of work preparing for Brexit. And again, Public Affairs has been right at the heart of this massively important development for the company. And we just look at things like our lorries going into Northern Ireland, which in London the media doesn't cover so much. We are just looking at the products coming in across the English Channel, but actually getting things from GB into Northern Ireland has taken up 90% of our work on Brexit, from about November onwards. And we were well prepared for that. And we were talking with our technical colleagues about what needed to be done. And I think the advanced warning that public affairs can bring, this is what we're hearing, this is who we need to speak to. And then a lot of hard work by colleagues on the technical side to make sure everything was in place meant that in January none of our lorries got stopped and checked and were delayed going into Northern Ireland. And a lot of our competitors did have their lorries stopped because the paperwork wasn't quite right. And that's a really good measurement, because when we're delivering to stores it is the equivalent of a just in time production line. And if our lorries had got stopped, they wouldn't have been there at three in the morning to be unloaded in the store to get everything on the shelf for the pickers to go around to do all the grocery shopping for the clinical extremely vulnerable before the shop opened at seven or eight in the morning. So every bit of delay is really, really important. I'm very proud that we did our public affairs part of that, and fed that into the company. And it's always sad, isn't it? You know, public affairs is a two way business. It's not just the company's voice talking to government. It's listening to government and feeding that back into the company as well and saying, 'what is going to be possible? and 'what do we need to change in our processes to meet the new regulations?'.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 22:28

That's a really interesting one. Because I know a lot of communicators believe that and they feel really strongly about the role that public affairs, in particular, has in feeding back into the company. But all too often they seem very frustrated about how that is received in their organization. Are there any tips or insights you can offer to help people put those messages across in a way that gets listened to?


Chris Lowe 22:54

Well, I'm very lucky in that I have a weekly meeting at half past eight on a Monday morning with our chief executive, me and my opposite number, who does the press office. And so I think through that you get the credibility and credentials that these things are important. It also gives us a message, of course, that the external world is very important to the chief executive. To be honest, when you've got something like Brexit, and COVID, and we're also going through an acquisition at the moment (Walmart is selling Asda), if you can't get the attention of the senior executives when there's all those massive public policy issues going on, then it's probably time to give up I would think.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 23:52

Well, I for one hope that public affairs practitioners around the world are not throwing down their pens in disgust. If you were doomed to repeat 2020 over again, what would you do differently?


Chris Lowe 24:04

The first thing I would do is get more resources. And I really regret not doing that. I think that I put my team under intolerable strain, or the circumstances put them under that strain. And looking back, I think there were lots of wellbeing issues because people working just ridiculously long hours. Now in a company like ours, when there's lots of different skills around - and we see public affairs as being quite different from a lot of things - but actually the processes that we wanted to do, like responding to all those MPs letters quickly, could have been done by a lot of people within our staff. And there will have been parts of Asda inevitably that were less busy during COVID. Because if you were on the part of the company that was developing new processes or new products, a lot of those just got put on ice because who knew what the future was going to look like? And so there would have been resources around and I should have reached out and asked for more resources. I think that's what I would do first, even if it's only on a temporary basis.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 25:31

The flip side of that, what lessons have you learned from living through 2020 that you'll be applying to your work from now on?


Chris Lowe 25:41

Well, I think it's a great opportunity to be creative. We've got standard ways of getting in touch with people. And we use our stores a lot to invite members of parliament in to meet the store manager, we do a lot of things in the local community, we've got a community champion in each of our stores. So we get MPs in on a targeted basis to meet that noise. And those sorts of things couldn't happen in 2020. So we had to look at different ways of doing things. So we brought in a way of getting our customer insight out to politicians. We do a lot of insight, mainly because we don't have a loyalty card. So we we've got to get our insight from questionnaires. And we think we question about 18,000 customers a week. So my team tapped into that. And every month now we do what we call the Asda Thousand. And we ask some more public policy based questions, and then write those out to politicians on subjects that we're interested in. But it shows that we are genuinely reflecting the voice of our customer on these public policy because it is their insight that we are giving. In another area, were very proud of the amount of local sourcing we've gotten, for example, in 2019, we got about 12 or 15 of our Scottish suppliers into Hollyrood to set up a farmers market and to demonstrate all their great local produce to the MSPs and talk about their relationship and how they'd grown their sales through Asda. Now, clearly, we couldn't do that in 2020. But we had the bright idea of doing a virtual tasting event on a Friday afternoon. And we set it up for about an hour and a half. And I said to my colleague who lives in Scotland, really, we're going to get an hour and a half, two hours of their time. And she said, well, they can't go anywhere at the moment. So probably, and she was absolutely right. And so the day before we set it up with about four or five members of Scottish parliament from a specific committee looking at these issues. And the day before we sent them, sort of a goodie bag of Scottish produce that was sold. And then we chose on that occasion three of our suppliers just to talk through their story and how they've grown with it. And it was such a good event. And all the MSPs loved it and it was so much more in depth and personal. And it's just a creative and different way of demonstrating what business benefits we can bring to small and medium sized Scottish suppliers without having to rent the hall in Holyrood parliament.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 28:49

Yes, I see venues having a difficult time after this now that we've discovered that lots of MPs and MSPs are very happy to talk to people on zoom. And it means they don't have to come in from their constituency, which is even better for them. Probably better for our carbon footprint as well.


Chris Lowe 29:04

It probably is. And the other area to say as well is that we've got data. Both with COVID, and with Brexit, these aren't the normal things that we'll be lobbying on. Every year we'll be talking about business rates in my old role in the alcohol industry we talk about duty on beer and you sort of go through a process. But with COVID and Brexit it's all new. And when you've got data, the civil service machine really opens up and really wants to know what's happening. So that's all the things about what I mentioned earlier about why we don't have queues anymore. The response I got from that was really positive. It helps them explain the picture and when you can open yourselves up to data...and a lot of it is confidential in a normal sense. But you know, you can trust the civil service, you can send it in and say we've given you this as background. It is commercially sensitive. But if you want to put it in a general context, and I would encourage people always to do that with a civil service, to trust that they will use that data confidentially and not use it against you.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 30:26

Chris, this has been utterly fascinating. And thank you so much for your time. Do you have any final tips for our listeners, before I let you go to your next meeting?


Chris Lowe 30:35

Be proactive, that's my first thing. I think that is how we got so much positivity from...... People do support you in that way. Not a massive number, but enough that you wouldn't have got before. And the other thing that I would always say whether COVID or non COVID is pick up the phone. I'm old enough that when I started this, we didn't have email. And I think we've really lost something by hiding behind email. If you find the right civil servant dealing with your issue, and you can firm them up and have a sensible conversation with them. You can find out so much and and have a real understanding of it in a way that they wouldn't be bothered writing all that in an email to you or even they might not be able, there might be a bit cautious about saying well, you know, we were hoping to get this consultation out by the end of the summer. But you know, we can't promise anything. They couldn't ever say that in an email. But we'll say that to you. So COVID or no COVID pick up the phone more often than you do now.


Daisy Powell-Chandler 32:16

That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest, Chris Lowe of Asda.


There is so much to unpack from this interview! Some of the lessons I am going to be drawing on are:

- First, be realistic. In many situations the chances of your organization pleasing 100% of your stakeholders may be zero. So how else can you judge success? Are there better indicators that you can use to understand performance? I really liked Chris’s anecdote about having a balancing number of complaints on each side of an argument.

- Second, be wary of the signals you are sending. As Asda improved its Covid security, MPs and civil servants began to assume that they were relaxing the rules. This shows how important it is to look out for hints of the proxy measures that your stakeholders use to assess your performance – something that you should be picking up in stakeholder audits but you will also need to be attentive to in your everyday conversations.

- Third: Be thoughtful about how you deploy your team. In our last episode, Zoom’s Charlotte Holloway spoke about the importance of trusted agencies and today Chris told us that if he could repeat 2020 he would be faster to draft in support from other areas of the business in order to safeguard the wellbeing of his team.


You will hear more on this topic in our next interview, when I’ll be talking to Beth Hart from McDonald's about the importance of trust, vital supply lines, and ensuring the safety of colleagues and customers during a pandemic.


- Finally, of course, we could all do with remembering Chris’ exhortation to pick up the phone – it really can make all of the difference.


Please do find us at whyeverybodyhatesyou.co.uk and click subscribe on your favourite podcasting app so that you don’t miss the rest of the series. I would also be really grateful if you could leave us a review, if you get the chance, as reviews help new listeners find the show. Thank you for listening to Why Everybody Hates You - and remember, you are not alone.