When you hear a really great business interview, it shines brightly. Perhaps that’s because there’s a paucity of good examples of corporate communication. Instead, we hear too many presentations struggling to break free from a PowerPoint straitjacket, or soundbites ruined by vacuous phrases such as “going forward”. (I heard that one twice today in a flagship radio news programme, including once from a senior reporter.)
So take a bow please, Mr Dave Lewis, the new chief executive of Tesco.
He was interviewed on Radio 4’s consumer programme You & Yours last week and from a media training perspective, he did pretty much everything right.
Tesco had invited reporters to come along and hear about a pilot project to reduce its food waste by working with charities to give it to people who needed it.
What a nice PR opportunity.
Well, yes, but You & Yours is not a programme that suffers PR puff.
With admirable scepticism, its reporter, Samantha Fenwick asked Mr Lewis, “Will this save you money?”. He was clear it would not. She pressed on…“Is this a PR gimmick?”
Lewis replied, “I can understand why you’re asking that,” and went on to explain, in a very affable and credible manner, exactly what this was all about. It didn’t sound like a gimmick at all.
Then came another tricky question: “Do you think people have fallen out of love with it [the Tesco brand]?” Note how Tesco had invited journalists to hear about its waste-saving day, but surprise, surprise, Fenwick wasn’t going to confine her interview to that; she had another agenda – the supermarket’s recent flagging fortunes.
But Lewis was refreshingly open and honest:
“I think the facts are that in the last three years we’ve lost market share…” Now, just in case that sounded a bit corporate – or perhaps to resonate with both City and High Street audiences – he reworded it: “…people are not shopping with us now who used to shop with us three years ago”.
He also made it abundantly clear he was not stuck in some ivory tower, remote from the people who pay his salary:
“Those same people [customers] are now talking to me about how ‘I do notice you have more people in store, I do notice things are more available and the prices are getting simpler and cheaper.’”
And to top this, when Fenwick mentioned she’d visited a Tesco store in Pontefract, he responded, “I know the Pontefract store – it’s close to home.”
By ’eck, they’ll love that in West Yorkshire.
And he didn’t just say the right things for customers and analysts: “My colleagues have been absolutely outstanding” – not “staff”, but “colleagues”, which is a great leveller.
Mr Lewis was on a roll, but the tricky questions kept coming, though not in an aggressive Paxman-esque fashion, but articulated in a way that suggested they’d trip easily off the tongue of a Tesco shopper. They were simple, yet dangerous.
When Mr Lewis talked about how he’d have to reduce the size of ranges, Fenwick asked if he was worried that might put suppliers out of business.
Crikey, the dreaded supplier question…I bet that made his corporate affairs manager grimace. But there was no need, because again Mr Lewis sounded honest and human:
“You always worry about that, that’s what partnership is about,” though he added, “I can’t avoid the fact I have a lot of products on my shelves that customers don’t want to buy”.
Who could argue with that? He sounded less like the super-boss of a supermarket chain and more like prudent down-to-earth Arkwright on Open All Hours…in the nicest possible way.
Even when Fenwick cheekily asked where further price cuts might occur, Lewis, smiled [yes, you can hear a smile on radio] and said, “That would take away the surprise!”.
It will take more than one good interview to see Tesco out of the woods of woe and there could be many more twists and turns to come, but no-one should underestimate the power the words of a boss, who clearly speaks the language of his customers and shop-floor staff, can have.
(Just contrast Lewis’s performance with his predecessor, Philip Clarke)
But board members, shareholders, suppliers and staff of all companies should note: an outstanding or appalling media interview can have a disproportionate effect on a company’s fortunes, as surely the likes of former BP boss Tony Hayward and jeweller Gerald Ratner would attest.
Tesco tells us “Every little helps”.
With this little interview alone, Mr Lewis has surely helped Tesco’s fortunes a lot.