Plaintiffs' lawyer surprised by Giant Chain asked her not to disclose bias suit, then did so itself

September 06, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Greg Schneider contributed to this article.

No one was more surprised to learn that Giant Food Inc. was holding a news conference Wednesday than Jo Ann Myles.

Myles is the Landover attorney who represents several Giant employees who are preparing to sue the local supermarket chain, alleging race discrimination.

The day before the news conference, Myles says, one of Giant's lawyers phoned her office, asking her not to speak to media about the imminent lawsuit.

"These are the people who didn't want a public display?" Myles asked yesterday.

Giant went very public Wednesday with charges that it has condoned a pattern of discrimination against black employees.

The company faced the allegations head-on, acknowledging some, disputing others and promising to be more sensitive in the future.

4 Giant is known for holding few news conferences.

In this case, company officials said they had to act aggressively.

"We wanted to make sure our message was disseminated clearly," said Giant spokesman Barry F. Scher.

He acknowledged that Giant lawyers had asked Myles not to speak about the case, but said they changed plans because she didn't return their phone calls.

Giant's course of action wasn't as unusual as it may seem.

An increasing number of major corporations recognize they can't hide from damaging publicity.

More are acknowledging that they're better off trying to put their own spin on the news than ignoring it, according to public relations experts familiar with managing bad press for corporations.

"Never let the opposition define the story," said Eddie Mahe, a Washington-based public relations consultant who advises corporations on crisis management. "We don't have many rules, but that's one. We want to define the initial story -- period."

Confronting the story doesn't necessarily mean denying it.

At its news conference, Giant officials acknowledged conduct company President Pete Manos called "repugnant" and "totally unacceptable" -- segregated locker rooms for employees in a recycling warehouse and pictures of primates with names of black workers written on them posted on bulletin boards, among other things.

But Giant still may have made out better by confronting the controversy.

The alternative was to wait for the filing of the lawsuit, expected next week.

A news conference presided over by Myles and her clients might have been still more damaging for Giant, says University of Maryland law Professor Marley Weiss, who teaches labor law.

"If the [employees'] lawyer is the one holding the press conference, she's distributing copies of the [lawsuit], bringing along a few of the plaintiffs. Maybe many more nasty details come out," Weiss said. "Even if there are no other allegations, they can be made to sound much uglier, believe it or not."

This week's news conference likely is part of a much larger plan being mapped out by Giant, say public relations experts. The greatest danger facing the super- market chain is that it could lose the confidence of customers, said Mahe.

If he were advising the company, he said, he might suggest it distribute letters into every grocery bag explaining the company's position, and mail others to customers with check-cashing cards.

"They have only scratched the surface of what they will have to go through," said Mahe, a consultant to the pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle, when the company became embroiled in controversy about one of its products, a contraceptive device.

"Giant's opposition is not the four or five employees suing them. It's also groups that might take an interest. Look at companies that have been hit by boycotts."

At a stockholders' meeting yesterday, Giant took steps that might help it deal with the recent controversy, announcing the appointment of a new vice president for community development, Stephen W. Neal.

Neal, who is black, has worked for Giant for 18 years. Officials said the promotion was not related to the threatened lawsuit. Neal said he viewed his appointment as "an opportunity for things to change more quickly."

Myles, the lawyer for the Giant employees, said she believes the company is preparing for a major battle over public opinion.

"It's just public relations, I guess," she said. "They're trying to do damage control for a lawsuit that potentially will cost them millions."

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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