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Social media play key role in Market Basket saga

It should be no surprise that in the digital age Facebook has served as the center of the Market Basket protest movement. But just a few short weeks ago, many of the employees leading the fight barely knew their way around the Internet.

Until recently Market Basket didn’t have an official company website. It quickly crashed and is still not working. Managers have company e-mail accounts but use them sparingly. When you work in a supermarket, the colleague you need to talk to is never more than a few aisles away.

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“Technology is not part of our company culture,” acknowledged Tom Gordon, who was a a grocery supervisor at market basket for 39 years before being fired in early July for helping organize the protest. “I’m still using my flip phone, if that’s any indication.”

Yet a Facebook page called Save Market Basket has become the hub where workers lay out the next course of action to get their ousted president, Arthur. T. Demoulas reinstated, post news articles and letters from the company’s board of directors, and where tens of thousands of customers have pledged their support.

They may not be tech-savvy, but Market Basket veterans quickly learned how to exploit the mobilizing power of social media.

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Or so it appears.

While many Market Basket employees have been willing put their names to the protest movement, the people behind the Facebook page and a companion website, WeAreMarketBasket.com, remain a mystery. None of the protest organizers would identify which of their colleagues are posting the material that has triggered such a tremendous outpouring of support.

The online campaign has been so effective at coordinating large-scale protests and convincing loyal shoppers to buy their groceries elsewhere that some business specialists have wondered whether workers are getting help from professionals, such as Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, the Boston public relations firm representing Arthur T. Demoulas.

Rasky managing director Justine Griffin said her firm has no hand in the workers’ social media savvy, calling it “a pure, employee-driven phenomenon.”

Steve Paulenka, a facilities and operations supervisor who was dismissed after 40 years at Market Basket, said two former employees are responsible for managing the workers’ web presence. But he wouldn’t say who they are.

One manager at the company, who requested anonymity to discuss the group’s inner workings, said he believes one of the digital ringleaders is Tom Trainor, a distribution supervisor who was fired after 41 years at the company.

Yet Trainor said it isn’t him; he doesn’t even have a Facebook account.

“It’s completely anonymous,” Trainor said. “Nobody knows, and nobody’s saying.”

Messages to the administrators of the Save Market Basket Facebook page were not returned.

In the month since Demoulas was removed by rival members of his divided family, the Save Market Basket Facebook page has racked up about 58,000 additional “likes,” more than quadrupling the total amassed over the previous year, when rumors of his pending dismissal swirled.

Of course, it only takes a mouse click to like a Facebook page. Honoring a boycott by shopping at other supermarkets that traditionally have had higher prices than Market Basket is another matter.

“A lot of people do not believe liking a page or retweeting a message constitutes real activism,” said Deen Freelon, a communications professor at American University who has studied the role of social media in protests. “It’s called slacktivisim.”

But what’s been impressive about Market Basket workers’ social media campaign, Freelon said, is that thousands of customers are heeding the call to shop the competition until Demoulas returns. The Market Basket in Burlington, for instance, reports daily traffic has plummeted from an average of 6,000 shoppers to about 200. The dropoff translated to $1.4 million in lost sales last week alone.

Many older and middle-age employees woke up to the impact of social media last summer, when Demoulas’ cousin and main rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, gained control of the company’s board of directors. Worried that would lead to the firing of Arthur T. senior employees wanted to organize a rally at Market Basket’s corporate headquarters in Tewksbury in July 2013, but didn’t know how to spread the word.

“I’ll never forget one of our young lady associates saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve got this,’ ” recalled Paulenka. “They did whatever they do on Facebook and Twitter, and we got about 1,000 people to show up.”

As it turned out, workers’ fears were slightly premature. Arthur T. Demoulas remained in charge for almost another year.

But when he was finally forced out in June of this year, his digital support system ramped up to new heights. Beyond the Save Market Basket Facebook page, the workers movement is a trending topic on Twitter -- particularly when demonstrations are happening live. During a rally in Tewksbury on July 21, for example, Cambridge data tracking firm SocialSphere counted 1,422 tweets with hashtags related to the cause in just two hours.

Market Basket shopper Michael Devaney has seen this kind of response. On a whim, he launched a website called MyDemoulas.net three years ago because he couldn’t find the company’s store hours online. He started posting circulars and coupons, and within six months was getting so much traffic that he turned the site into a full-time job and lives off the advertising he sells.

With that kind of following during stable times for Market Basket, it’s no wonder that employees and customers are flooding the Internet now.

“These people are passionate about a supermarket, which doesn’t make sense to most people,” Devaney said. “But I joke that the Market Basket crowd is like a cult, so I’m not surprised.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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