Two Big Blows to Grocery Chain's Reputation With Women

What Women Really Think
May 17 2012 5:11 PM

Two Big Blows to Grocery Chain's Reputation With Women

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A Safeway grocery store

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

The grocery store chain Safeway is having a bad PR week with women.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

On Tuesday, station KION reported that a Del Rey, Calif., Safeway employee has been suspended since last month, when he reportedly intervened after seeing a pregnant customer being abused by her boyfriend. "Every few seconds he would turn around and push her and then he actually kicked her. … I just became afraid for her safety and also other customers,” Ryan Young, a butcher, told KION. A local police chief supports his account, saying that Ryan “did the right thing.” But as of yesterday, he was still suspended without pay—and as he has emphasized, his own girlfriend is pregnant.

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The story angered many across the country, and Safeway’s Twitter account and Facebook page have been inundated with messages from people demanding that Young get his job back. But in a statement, Safeway said that Ryan’s case is going through the union grievance process and asked for “the public’s patience.”

Young’s plight isn’t the only reason why irate social media users are threatening to boycott the chain. The Daily Kos’ Kaili Joy Gray reports that at Safeway’s annual shareholder meeting Tuesday, senior vice president and general counsel Robert Gordon apparently made a joke that offensive to Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, women, Democrats, pigs, and anyone with a conscience.

You know, this is the season when companies and other institutions are interested in enhancing their reputation and their image for the general public, and one of the institutions that's doing this is the Secret Service, particularly after the calamity in Colombia. And among the instructions given to the Secret Service agents was to try to agree with the president more and support his decisions. And that led to this exchange that took place last week, when the president flew into the White House lawn and an agent greeted him at the helicopter.
The president was carrying two pigs under his arms and the Secret Service agents said, "Nice pigs, sir."
And the president said, "These are not ordinary pigs, these are genuine Arkansas razorback hogs. I got one for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton."
And the Secret Service agent said, "Excellent trade, sir."

The recording is available on Safeway's website. The joke occurs about one minute into the audio, just before Gordon officially calls the meeting to order.

Let’s put aside the fact that it’s not even funny (and I’ll cop to enjoying some not-very-PC jokes). One would expect the general counsel of a large company to have better sense than to open that kind of joke while talking about companies “enhancing their reputation and their image for the general public.” As Gray says, it’s disheartening that “a high-level executive at a major Fortune 500 corporation felt perfectly comfortable telling [this joke] at a meeting that he knew was being recorded and webcast out to the world.”

Safeway says it is examing security footage of the incident with Ryan. Unless there is compelling video evidence that the employee’s actions were wrong—and remember, he has the support of the police chief, who has presumably also seen the tape—the smart thing for Safeway to do would be to reinstate him and donate a lot of money to a shelter for abused women.

Or perhaps what Safeway should do is demote Gordon to the meat counter—after all, his joke demonstrates that he likes pork—and  elevate Ryan to corporate.

Update, May 18, 2012: Gordon has issued a statement regarding the joke. He says: "I sincerely apologize if the opening comments I made at the recent annual stockholders meeting offended anyone. As these comments have been interpreted, they are not a reflection of my personal beliefs or that of my employer. I understand how my comments have impacted others and I hope they will accept my apology."

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