Tita Freeman didn't take long to make her mark at the National Retail Federation (NRF). Lured from the US Chamber of Commerce to head communications and public affairs, Freeman was in CEO Matt Shay's office after just two days pitching a campaign to settle a long battle with the financial industry over reform of debit card charges.
"Every time a debit card is swiped at a retail establishment, banks charge 44 cents on top of the price," she explains. "Studies show the actual cost is less than 12 cents. For some small retailers, it's their greatest expense."
The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill landed in July last year. The bill and subsequent Durbin Amendment mandated the Federal Reserve Board to bring down debit-swipe fees to take effect at the end of July 2011, but the banking industry poured mil-lions of dollars into a campaign to delay the reform, which looked set to succeed. "Once delayed, it would never have taken effect," adds Freeman. "The political environment would not have allowed a new bill to be passed."
With the help of David French, the NRF's SVP of government relations, Freeman set out to fight the delay. She instigated a 60-day campaign that changed the debate from "big banks versus big-box retailers" to "big banks versus Main Street merchants."
Howard Opinsky, MD of corporate communications at JPMorgan Chase - part of the Electronic Payments Coalition - knew Freeman from his days at Powell Tate, as she was his client at the chamber and, previously, the Business Roundtable, an association comprised of CEOs of leading US companies.
"[The coalition] having success led the federation to Tita," he says. "They realized they weren't doing enough to compete."
Freeman's campaign emphasized the onerous costs for Main Street merchants trying to stay open and stimulate jobs. Tactics included an interactive website with a map where people could tweet their senators about reform; viral video; social media, including a "fight swipe fees in 60 seconds" mechanic; a press briefing; radio ads; and an op-ed campaign.
"This happens when an aggressive, campaign-minded individual sees an opportunity," says Shay. "It made a big difference."
National Retail Federation, SVP, comms and public affairs
February 2008-May 2011
US Chamber of Commerce. Started out as executive director, comms and strategy. In Oct. 2008, became VP, comms and strategy
October 2007-February 2008
Google, comms and public affairs consultant
June 2002-May 2007
Business Roundtable. Began as the deputy comms director. Was named director of comms in January 2004
Victory on many levels
Freeman's effort was fast-moving and more comprehensive than the one-off release or briefing associated with NRF communications - and it helped defeat a stand-alone bill designed to delay the reforms. The final amendment in late June, due into practice in October, fixed fees at an average of 21 cents - less than half what it used to be.
"We outfoxed the big banks, which is a huge victory, especially in this town, where banks are heavily resourced," she explains.
For a six-figure-plus investment over the 60 days, and several million during the whole debate, half of which went for communications, the initiative will save the retail industry about $10 billion a year. "It's one of the most successful and targeted things I've done," says Freeman. "And the results are measurable."
She wants to extend the strategy into the separate debate on credit-card reform through a website where retailers can share stories on how they're passing savings on to consumers.
"As the credit-card swipe debate happens, we'll highlight the tangible savings passed on to consumers as part of the debit-fee reform," adds Freeman. "The banks accused retail of fighting for this so we could pocket the savings. But retailers have committed to passing down savings. We must catalogue that and point to it during the credit-card debate."
From a tactical and issue perspective, Freeman sees this as her first major success for the NRF. For Shay, "it was just the first example of things that have happened since then. She's a terrific executive. We're trying to give the industry the visibility and awareness it needs, given the broad impact of retail on the nation's economy. To do that, we need an aggressive and efficient communications function."
The challenge for Freeman and Shay - who became CEO last year after Tracy Mullin retired following 17 years - is that the federation is not the power player it should be on the Hill. "The NRF has been the trusted, go-to source for the retail industry on trends, consumer data, anything happening in the industry," says Freeman, "but there's an enormous opportunity to raise the influence of the retail industry with this Congress."
Freeman's "shopping list"
• Retail is very highly taxed, so she will lobby for comprehensive reform, especially lowering of corporate tax
• Support the Main Street Fairness campaign on leveling out the sales tax playing field for brick-and-mortar and online retailers
• Support visa policy reform so it's easier for high-spending US tourists, especially from China and Brazil, who spend an average of $6,000 a visit
• Support free trade, as trade is good for jobs and for retail
• Fight against swipe-card fees
• Collaborate more with rival, big-box trade body the Retail Industry Leaders Association and attract disaffected members to return to the NRF
Retail is full of well-known, trusted brands. Unlike biotech, for example, members of Congress know what the industry does before retailers talk about their agenda.
"We're in every district in the US," she adds. "We interact with consumers on a daily basis. We are a very important barometer of economic health and consumer behavior. We have an important story to tell."
For example, the retail industry accounts for one-in-four US jobs and nearly 20% of GDP. "We're an economic heavyweight, but we are not a heavyweight when it comes to advocating in Washington," says Freeman.
Her plan involves defining the NRF's value proposition as an industry, building a winning issues agenda, improving its communications infrastructure, and, finally, execution.
The first phase culminated in a September campaign launch about why retail matters and legislative priorities for the rest of 2011. The centerpiece is a Web action center, www.retailmeansjobs.com, featuring a state-by-state clickable map with a snapshot of retail's contribution to jobs, GDP growth, comparisons to other categories, and a retailer rundown.
It's the start of a yearlong series of events in major cities where retail members are high profile or have large establishments, a "faces of retail" video contest in early 2012, and a focus on education and retail careers.
"We'll advance an agenda for jobs, innovation, and consumer value," summarizes Freeman. "We're building a broader agenda with themes that transcend granular policy priorities and resonate with the general public and retail community."
For Freeman, the challenges at the NRF are not dissimilar to what she experienced at the chamber and Business Roundtable.
"When I joined in 2002, the roundtable had the same president for 10 years," she recalls. "Then-CEO John Castellani wanted to be more high profile. He enhanced thought leadership and national visibility."
The chamber was already highly visible, but it had a reactive, transactional communications function: SVP of communications and strategy Tom Collamore was brought on to change that - and he hired Freeman.
"We built one of the most top-notch teams in town," she says. "They really are a communications juggernaut. I have the highest regard for [CEO] Tom Donohue and Tom Collamore. They have been tremendous mentors."
The feeling is mutual. "She was a terrific partner," says Collamore. "She has the ability to see the larger picture and approaches communications challenges with strategic thinking. She has a unique ability to get people to work together across functions."
Another mentor, Margery Kraus, CEO of APCO Worldwide, where Freeman worked from 1997 to 2000, says: "Tita always stood out as a star. She proves you don't have to be nasty to be effective. You get further when people want to work with you."
And Shay points out: "Someone of that quality raises the bar for everyone."
As the credit-card swipe fees debate approaches, that's something to which the banking industry can certainly attest.