Shooting the Messenger?

Talk about having a beef with corporate management. There, splashed across TV screens throughout America, was a blistering expose accusing Food Lion Inc., the nation's fastest-growing supermarket chain, of dipping old meat in bleach and disguising tainted chicken with barbecue sauce. The report, broadcast on ABC's "PrimeTime Live," prompted Food Lion to take the offensive. Last week the company sent its workers into battle and waged a public-relations campaign that top executives liken to Operation Desert Storm.

Food Lion's offensive is receiving close scrutiny from corporations looking for ways to fend off bad publicity. Many public-relations experts like to think they learned valuable lessons from Johnson & Johnson's smooth handling of the Tylenol poisoning scare in 1982. But Food Lion's fierce tactics may not be something every company wants to emulate.

The company's problems started earlier this month after "PrimeTime" reported that some 70 current and former employees at 200 stores said they regularly removed "sell by" dates on products and doctored bad meat. Hours after the program aired, president and CEO Tom E. Smith issued a statement peppered with the refrain "These lies have got to stop." The next day Smith made a 50-minute conference call to stock analysts charging that most of "PrimeTime's" sources were union sympathizers and therefore lacked credibility. (The United Food & Commercial Workers, which is trying to organize Food Lion workers, counters that it supplied "PrimeTime" producers with fewer than half the sources interviewed for the broadcast.) The CEO also took to the airwaves. "You've heard some shocking stories about Food Lion," he said in a new commercial. "We do have sound policies and procedures. However, occasionally a problem can exist."

To spread the company's version even further, Food Lion prepared 60,000 videotapes with the company's response and sent them to the work force. Employees were urged to screen the tapes for family, friends and local groups. "One thing we suggested," says Food Lion vice president Vincent G. Watkins, "is that they might want to have a party with their friends and serve them food from Food Lion's delis."

It's not the first time Food Lion has tangled with the press in its lengthy battle with the union. When a Fortune article criticized the firm for what it called "unyielding" productivity demands, the chain removed copies of the publication from its shelves. And after a Dallas Morning News reporter wrote a piece citing worker complaints of off-the-clock labor, she says, the chain's lawyers queried her about her sources.

Can such tactics help Food Lion restore its reputation? Though sales dipped immediately after the broadcast, they have increased each day since, Watkins maintains. Steven Fink, a Los Angeles crisis-management expert, believes that the company helped its case by airing its riposte quickly and aggressively. But in the end, customers will decide Food Lion's fate at the meat counter. As Raleigh, N.C., store manager B C Cooper puts it: "Shoppers are very picky. You can't sell them anything. Nobody would buy ham with bleach on it."

Shooting the Messenger? | News