Widespread outreach has helped the National Retail Federation earn year-round press interest.
The winter holiday season is the busiest time of the year not just for retailers, but also for the National Retail Federation (NRF), which always gets innumerable media inquiries on the state of consumer spending at retail outlets and what the buying trends are. For a consumer-based economy like the US, such figures aren't just interesting trivia; they're a window into the state of the US' financial health.
But while the perennial interest in holiday sales is always welcome, for the PR staff of the NRF, a trade association with thousands of members ranging from huge corporations to mom-and-pop stores and online outlets, an ongoing goal is finding ways to communicate with the media, analysts, and the public at large throughout the year.
Scott Krugman, the NRF's VP of industry PR, says his organization works on outreach on many issues that bedevil association members, such as organized retail crime and data security, and which directly or indirectly affect ordinary consumers. Explaining through media outreach that organized retail crime adds to the price of products for everyone and forces retailers to develop more restrictive return policies, for instance, helps forestall negative press and promote goodwill by consumers toward stores.
"We used to get questions during the holiday season about why retailers make it harder to return merchandise, but we don't get that question as much anymore," he says. "Part of the reason for that is our education efforts, but also we do as much original research as possible to show specific trends," such as just how much money retailers lose to return fraud.
Ellen Davis, NRF's senior director of strategic communications, recalls an article in the LA Times about consumers upset with a return-policy change at a large retailer - customers would no longer be able to return electronic goods more than 90 days after purchase. Readers overwhelmingly supported the retailer - not the upset customers, as might be expected.
"Part of the understanding we're trying to get through is that retailers are out to protect customers from others taking advantage of policy or procedures," she says. "We've shifted the focus from blaming the retailer to blaming [those] committing fraud."
Key to maintaining good media relations is face-to-face meetings with reporters, according to Krugman and Davis, who say that when a new reporter starts on a beat or at a title that's key to the NRF, they always try to get on a plane and meet with the journalist personally. Such meetings make reporters mindful, as well as comfortable, about calling the NRF next time they are working on a relevant story, benefiting NRF's media coverage, and also helping its PR staff get feedback on their own operations.
NRF outreach increasingly involves talking with retail bloggers, as well as the use of online tools, including a revamped Web site, www.nrf.com, with a special "NRF Holiday Headquarters" section featuring holiday spending-related information. NRF employs Abernathy MacGregor for strategic counsel on its communications in general, as well as tactical assistance during its big annual convention in January in New York.
To ensure it maintains "thought leadership" and credibility, NRF strives to make its research as transparent as possible, including detailed explanations of its methodology. In addition, the PR department says it always aims to respond to all news stories - positive and negative. It doesn't comment on individual members, but in the event of breaking news related to the industry, it will at least try to help the press understand the context.
"We fight other people's perception that we are supposed to be industry cheerleaders," says Krugman. "Actually, if we create false expectations for retailers during the holiday season, we can end up hurting them in the long run if there are expectations they were not able to meet."
Another vital component is internal communications. For that, the NRF employs a daily electronic newsletter that provides coverage of important retail-related news. In addition, committees within the NRF -broken down by issues such as "green" initiatives, store operations, or technology - have their own meetings and channels of communication and help members not feel "lost" within the larger organization, Krugman adds.
One specific retail issue of recent concern is data security. To that end, the NRF has launched a media relations campaign discussing a new initiative to get industry regulators to lift requirements that retailers store consumers' credit card data for 12 to 18 months, a circumstance the NRF argues creates unnecessary opportunity for theft.
A major data breach at a retailer may be inevitable, but with effective advance PR, public blaming of retailers is not.
At a glance
Organization: National Retail Federation
President and CEO: Tracy Mullin
Headquarters: Washington, DC
Comms budget: Undisclosed
Key trade titles: Women's Wear Daily, Retailing Today, STORES, Chain Store Age
Scott Krugman, VP of PR;
Ellen Davis, senior director of strategic comms;
J. Craig Shearman, VP of govt. affairs;
Kathy Grannis, media relations manager;
Ana Van Engelen, director of comms
Abernathy MacGregor Public Relations