Good crisis communications–99p Stores CEO turns tables on BBC Watchdog

I try not to watch BBC Watchdog as it tends to annoy me with its fake concern for consumers, when it’s just making cheap ‘shock’ TV. But I’m glad I caught last Thursday’s as it contained a brilliant performance by Hussein Lalani, the entrepreneurial CEO of a family owned retail business. The 99p Stores is a fast growing value retail chain and for some bizarre reason Watchdog decided to make it the victim of one of its usual hatchet jobs.

The allegation was that 99p Stores was ripping off consumers by using misleading price claim signs such as ‘Amazing Value’, ‘Mega Deals’, ‘We will not be beaten on price’ and ‘Unbeatable Value’. On some products it also has price comparison labels on the shelves.

Watchdog’s complaint was that a lot of these labels were wrong, which does on the face of it seem rather outrageous. However, Watchdog’s own research found that most of the time 99p Stores was still actually cheaper than the comparison. Not so outrageous, in fact it makes me rather want to go to a 99p store and spend my pennies.

Watchdog’s chief attack dog is veteran TV presenter Anne Robinson, who has a reputation of being particularly aggressive, so it’s a brave business person who agrees to be humiliated by her. It is why companies so frequently resort to the tactic of simply sending a statement that can be read out.

That’s why I was surprised that the 99p Stores CEO agreed to the studio interview. However, once it started you could see why. He was brilliant and for once you saw an unfairly maligned business turning the tables on Watchdog.

The moment when Hussein Lalani apologises and says the misleading signs will be removed and then whips the new replacement poster out of his pocket is genius. The new poster makes the simple factual claim that ‘According to BBC Watchdog research 82.5% of the time we do beat the leading supermarkets.’ Anne Robinson continued to flounder for the rest of the interview as Hussein kept responding politely making her appear to be rude, petty and unreasonable.

Watch the whole report for context or jump to 5m 36s for the interview. It’s an excellent crisis communications case study and one that I’ll be using in my online PR crisis communications training in future.

After the interview Hussein also did a great job of using social media to engage with both supporters and critics on Twitter and YouTube.

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Stuart Bruce

International Public Relations Adviser | Trainer | Author | Media Commentator | Conference Speaker | University Lecturer | Online PR | Digital Corporate Communications | Crisis Communications | Digital Public Affairs