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Stupid PR Watch: The Price-Chopper Lesson Everyone Missed

By Ken Magill

From the “this-will-go-down-in-the-annals-of-how-not-to-handle-social-media” file comes a story last week of a rogue Price Chopper employee reportedly going after a man who posted a negative tweet about the discount grocery store.

While most bloggers and those commenting in the discussions on Price Chopper’s Twitter incident seem relatively satisfied with Price Chopper’s efforts at damage control, the company missed a huge opportunity to address the real issue.

The story first emerged early last week when Anthony Rotolo, a professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information, posted it on a Tumbler blog.

According to Rotolo, after a friend of his posted a tweet saying that every time he goes to Price Chopper he is reminded it is not Wegmans, citing an empty produce section and picturing a grammatically challenged aisle sign—hint: everything’s spelled in plural—a Price Chopper PR rep contacted the tweeter’s employer and requested disciplinary action against him.

The best journalistic coverage of the incident I was able to find is here.

After the story went blazingly viral, Price Chopper responded with an apology on Rotolo’s site by the employee responsible:

“Hello - I want to take this opportunity to accept full responsibility for this situation. I am the Price Chopper employee who triggered this chain of events. I've worked in the public relations department at the company for the last two months and I saw the negative tweets and responded through my personal twitter account. This is not the way that Price Chopper normally handles critical comments on Twitter or other social media. What should have happened is that our consumer insights team (the team headed by Heidi Reale) would have directly contacted the customer who had an issue or concern through a Price Chopper twitter account and worked to either resolve it or provide some explanation.

“I took matters into my own hands. And though well-intentioned, I clearly went over the line - without the knowledge of our consumer insights people or my direct supervisor, the Vice President of Public Relations and Consumer and Marketing Services. I was trying to understand and engage a disgruntled customer and clearly lost sight of my goal.

“I appreciate having this forum to apologize to the individual who made the initial complaint and to make sure that all concerned understand that these actions were not the policy of Price Chopper nor does the company condone them. I made a mistake which will help me grow and, hopefully, further assist Price Chopper in our efforts to better utilize social media to engage our customers.”

Fair enough. But everyone seems to think the incident was a teachable moment on the corporate handling of Social Media. It wasn’t.

It was a teachable moment on positive brand positioning. Yes, Price Chopper was right to send the offending employee into the fray with an apology, but the company utterly failed to address the core issue: the tweeter’s comparison of Price Chopper to Wegmans.

Upstate-New-York-grocery chain Wegmans is a food shopper’s nirvana minus Whole Foods’ overpriced preciousness. Wegmans’ prepared foods are excellent as are the quality and variety of its meats, seafood, produce and overall selection. [It could do a little better in the beer department, but that’s just me.] Its aisles are clean, bright and orderly.

In contrast, Price Chopper is a discount-grocery chain that isn’t remotely aesthetically pleasing. But Price Chopper isn’t trying to be Wegmans—or god help its executives if they think it is.

A look at the two chains’ home pages illustrates perfectly the differences between their brands. Price Chopper’s home page screams discount.  Wegmans targets gourmet cooks.

Here was a big, fat opportunity for Price Chopper to issue a statement along the lines of: “You want arugula? Go to Wegmans. You want to save gobs of money? Come to Price Chopper” and the company inexplicably failed to take advantage of it.

Price Chopper’s PR team last week had a Twitter softball lobbed straight over home plate. They could have easily knocked it out of the park and they didn’t even take a swing.

Author’s note: Though this story was all over the Internet last week, I was first made aware of it by the blog Box of Meat. I get a lot of story ideas from Box of Meat. It is No. 1 on my “favorites” list. It is the first blog I check every day because it always leads me in new, informative, unexpected directions. Box of Meat’s proprietor, J.D. Falk, and its other contributors will probably be appalled to learn I’m such a fan—let’s just say they are not marketing’s biggest cheerleaders—but I wanted to take this opportunity to extend a hat tip to them anyway.

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