PR campaigns can sometimes be saucy. As was the case in 2014 when CEO of activist company Starboard Value, Jeff Smith, battled against the forces of Darden Restaurants, Inc. owners of Olive Garden and other chains. As a result of the campaign, Jeff Smith took control as chairman Darden effectively replacing the 12 man committee heading the Fortune 500 Company.
The Public Relations Campaign
In the PR campaign, Jeff Smith headed an attack on Darden with a 300 slide powerpoint claiming the restaurants didn’t add enough salt to their pasta, and giving out too many breadsticks was a poor business decision. In addition to providing data to try and win over investors, Smith and Starboard took a universal approach appealing to people cooking at home.
The Simple PR Questions
Sometimes the easiest way to make a large impact is asking investors and customers a simple question or requesting a critique. In this case, Starboard Value asked its investors “If you Google ‘How to cook pasta,’ the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water. How does the largest Italian dining concept in the world not salt the water for pasta?”
After disclosing the campaign, Olive Garden tried to discredit its findings, suggesting unlimited breadsticks and salad dressing represented “Italian Generosity.”
However, the question about cooking pasta going viral. If you Google the above question, the quote pops up on various popular business websites, namely Mother Jones, Newsy, and other blogs. The critique resonated with investors, and with a follow through plan claiming changes to the infrastructure of the chains could save the company $114 million dollars, the investors loved the new approach.
The Role of PR as Critique
This huge win for Jeff Smith and Starboard Value allowing them to take over in an unprecedented uprooting of a multi-billion dollar company. It’s the largest takeover by a fledgling activist company owning less than 10% of the stock in the company when taking charge.
It also points to the powerful effect a successfully run PR campaign clarifies on the bigger picture of businesses and reform. Recognizing the need for reform, Smith’s campaign zeroed in on the weak points, and the result was an easy to “digest” one-line critique resonating universally. With a clear vision for how the company moves forward after changing hands – Smith and Starboard Value breathed new life and leadership into the Darden brand.
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