Three years ago, the Co-operative Group was mired in crises. Its banking operations had unveiled a massive black hole in its finances while the bank’s Methodist minister chairman Paul Flowers was the subject of a tabloid sting, revealing his taste for drugs and rent boys. And its chief executive quit, describing the group as ‘ungovernable’ after details of his £6.6 million pay packet are leaked to the media. Just half of the media coverage was positive, while 23 per cent of articles were negative.
The arrival of a new chief executive and the subsequent restructuring of the group, shedding Co-op Bank and other non-core businesses, plus a focus on corporate governance put the group on a more stable footing. And last year, it returned to its roots, rebranding itself as The Co-op, bringing its iconic blue logo back to the high street and launching a new membership scheme that had at its heart the founding principles of the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. At the heart of the strategy sits the in-house communications team, comprising 15 PR professionals with a remit covering the full spectrum of responsibilities, from reputation management to delivering thought-leadership campaigns via a range of stakeholder media channels.
With a target audience consisting of the Co-op’s 4.5 million members, potential new members and key opinion formers, including business writers, the team has three objectives. It proactively engages with the corporate media to build an understanding of business strategy, financial performance and the virtues of the co-op economy. It also promotes products through consumer PR-led stories. And finally, it showcases the difference of the Co-op business model through eye-catching campaigns. For its first objective, the team worked to develop a number of hard-hitting campaigns that demonstrated what back to being the Co-op means, such as how the membership scheme benefits local communities (one per cent of spending on own-brand goods and Co-op services is redistributed locally).
Launched in September 2016, the first announcement six months later revealed £9 million had been distributed to 4,000 good causes. National and regional approaches were devised, alongside a community report. The news generated more than 600 pieces of coverage, including 196 items on the radio and television. Short films celebrating the payouts had 690,000 impressions online. More importantly, perhaps, the campaigns attracted one million new members by July 2017, six months ahead of target, while 40 per cent of people associated the Co-op with supporting their local communities.
The Co-op’s business strategy is to support British farmers, and it became the first national retailer to only sell 100 per cent British fresh own brand meat. A PR strategy highlighting a better way of doing business, with simple strong messages, generated more than 500 items of positive press coverage. But the Co-op is also about more than its business model. And two years ago, marked a return to form with a hard-hitting campaign to highlight the issue of loneliness and isolation.
It launched an innovative partnership with the Red Cross and last December produced a detailed report that identified the key triggers of loneliness and how communities can play a role in alleviating this. Launched at an event in Westminster, the report achieved widespread media coverage including a special Channel 4 feature.
Last year, the team’s hard work was rewarded as 76 per cent of all coverage about the group was positive. Just one per cent was negative. ‘The Co-op has worked hard to fight back,’ said the judges. ‘And this entry demonstrates real progress.’