A lesson learned for Publix

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A lesson learned for Publix

By Lawrence Aylward - 05/30/2018
Publix: "We respect the students and members of the community who have chosen to express their voices on these issues."

As store brands evolve and become more about than just creating and selling tangible private-branded products, retailers are trying to make a good name for themselves through superb customer service and other non-tangible measures to improve their own-brand images. But they might want to stay out of politics.

Just ask Publix Super Markets.

Publix made national news the past several days — and has been criticized heavily by opinion makers — since the Tampa Bay Tribune reported that the Lakeland, Fla.-based grocery chain donated $670,000 in the last three years to support Adam Putnam’s campaign for Florida governor. The Republican politician, currently Florida’s ag commissioner, is a stout NRA supporter and even called himself “a proud NRA sellout” last year.

Of course, the acronym “NRA” is a sizzling hot potato these days mainly because of the heartbreaking school shootings that have occurred throughout the country, including in February at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people died. Publix operates most of its 1,160 stores in Florida.

In the wake of the Tampa Bay Tribune’s report — when Publix began to receive harsh criticism for supporting an NRA proponent — the retailer said it was supporting Putnam for his “pro business values” and made it clear it was donating money to Putnam, not the NRA. But that didn’t seem to resonate with the public.

“A lot of people don’t support who Publix is supporting,” Haylee Shepherd, a 15-year-old sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, told the Associated Press. “It’s going to reflect on them as a brand and people shopping there.”

Soon after the news hit, there were calls to boycott Publix. Last Friday Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg, who has become a gun control activist and vocal NRA critic, organized a “die-in” at several Publix stores where several protesters went to the stores and laid down in aisles. The media, from mainstream to social, was buzzing about it.

Realizing it had a potential public relations nightmare on its hands, Publix issued a statement saying it was suspending corporate-funded political contributions and was going to re-evaluate its giving processes. Publix also said, “we respect the students and members of the community who have chosen to express their voices on these issues. We regret our contributions have led to a divide in our community. We did not intend to put our associates and the customers they serve in the middle of a political debate.”

But gun control is the hottest political debate on the table, and more Americans want tougher gun laws than ever. So you can see how Publix got itself in this mess.

That said, this too shall pass for Publix, which is highly regarded for many things including its altruism. If there’s a hurricane or other natural disaster in Florida, you can count on Publix to be one of the first businesses there with people and product to help those in need. Unfortunately, the good news that businesses make is not reported like the controversial news they make, and Publix does a lot of good.

Still, there is a lesson to be learned here if you are a business — especially a business with public customers — and elect to play politics in a very divided country. If you play, you better be prepared for the possible repercussions and a backlash that might get bigger than you ever realized.

If you’d rather avoid a harsh media spotlight that can make you sweat, stay out of politics.

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