June 4, 2018
Publix Responds to Public Outcry
Publix Supermarkets, an employee-owned grocery chain based in central Florida, has supported the political aspirations of “local boy” Adam Putnam for more than a decade. But recent outsized donations to Putnam’s campaign had customers seeing red and threatening to take their green elsewhere.
Publix reportedly donated $670,000 to Putnam’s campaign for governor. The current Florida agriculture commissioner, Putnam is in a heated battle with Rep. Ron DeSantis, a member of the so-called “Freedom Caucus” who enjoys the support of President Donald Trump.
In an effort to blunt some of DeSantis’ conservative credibility, the typically centrist Putnam has shifted both his positions and his rhetoric to the right. His communications of late, both in advertising and in public appearances, have been chock full of terms that are red meat to fans of right-leaning political radio and web media.
DeSantis has been calling the language and messaging campaign bluster, but many Florida voters have expressed shock at this transformation. Then, when the news broke that Publix, a brand nearly universally adored by Floridians across the political spectrum, was donating hundreds of thousands to Putnam, the criticism was scathing.
Media outlets lambasted the company. Shoppers organized boycotts on social media. Survivors of the Parkland school shooting held “die-ins” in local Publix stores that received nationwide media coverage.
Days passed, and Publix remained silent on the issue. With no statement forthcoming, some Publix fans on the political right organized counter protests and “I stand with Publix” social media campaigns. Still, though, no word from Publix corporate communications. It appeared the company hoped this would blow over, but the story held on through multiple news cycles. When a subtropical storm with near hurricane-force winds approaching Florida as well as the impending Memorial Day holiday failed to knock #BoycottPublix out of the headlines or off social media, the company finally released a statement in an effort to blunt the cascading effects of what was shaping up to be a self-inflicted PR crisis leading into one of the biggest grocery shopping weekends of the year.
Publix announced that it would be effectively suspending all political contributions “immediately” and indefinitely. The accompanying PR statement relied heavily on the Publix culture and slogans that every Floridian would be familiar with:
“At Publix, we respect the students and members of the community who have chosen to express their voices on these issues… We regret that our contributions have led to a divide in our community. We did not intent to put our associates and the customers they serve in the middle of a political debate. At the same time, we remain committed to maintaining a welcoming shopping experience… We would never knowingly disappoint our customers or the communities we serve.”
As PR statement, Publix does a lot in a single paragraph. Publix offers a collective statement that ‘respects’ both sides of the issue. They express regret and take responsibility, while also clarifying intention (without spelling out those intentions). The statement then attempts to shift the focus back to who Publix is as a locally-based, employee-owned company where, as their slogan promises, “shopping is a pleasure.”
As a final deft touch, longtime customers will recognize the phrasing of the last sentence ‘we will never knowingly disappoint you…’ as part of the ‘Publix Guarantee’ that helped define the company culture while pushing Publix to grocery supremacy in Florida and other southern states:
“We will never knowingly disappoint you. If for any reason your purchase does not give you complete satisfaction, the full purchase price will be cheerfully refunded immediately upon request.”
Longtime Publix shoppers instantly recognize that slogan, that was once prominently displayed in every store. Using the phrasing is a sharp move, an emotional appeal to a longstanding relationship reminding customers why they were loyal to Publix in the first place. It may not blunt all the raw feelings, but it certainly begins rebuilding the bridge.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO and Founder of 5W Public Relations.