News Analysis: Retailers mustn't cut back comms

The ex-Safeway corporate affairs chief says the retail sector needs to keep hold of its top communicators, because in good times and bad, they prove priceless.

From a communications point of view, the retail industry has seen curious developments of late.

The long-serving corporate affairs director of Asda, Christine Watts, left suddenly, with a question mark over whether she would be replaced by a similarly senior individual (PRWeek, 8 July). Only last month Woolworths made head of corporate affairs Nicole Lander redundant. And when Sainsbury's set about replacing its outgoing director of corporate relations Jan Shawe last year, it promoted Pip Wood, passing a chunk of Shawe's responsibilities to the marketing department.

But is this effective downgrading of senior comms roles wise? On the contrary, I believe major retail businesses need their senior comms people to be more focused than ever, because they are communicating to a wide range of stakeholders, and in a tough climate.

The role and level of influence of corporate comms directors varies according to retailer. For example.

at Tesco, Lucy Neville-Rolfe has the dual responsibility of company secretary and group corporate affairs director. She is also a member of the executive committee, which gives her immediate access to company development and planning at the highest level. But she seems to be the exception among the publicly listed retailers.

John Lewis, meanwhile, has recognised that despite being a non-listed company, development of corporate PR is one of the essential building blocks of reputation. It has created an active dialogue with the analyst community, which both sides have found useful. John Lewis also engages with policy makers on issues that directly affect it, including the congestion charge, on which it has been most vocal.

Rising pressure

Another driving force for retail comms is that over the past few years, media attention has grown because the industry's brands have become so central to people's everyday lives. More empirically, there is evidence that those companies without long-term media relationships tended to suffer more in terms of coverage when their market share slipped.

Marks & Spencer is a classic case. Richard Greenbury, CEO of the giant in the 1990s, failed to appreciate the value of strong direct media and City relationships when the company was doing well. His successor, Stuart Rose, by contrast, has developed healthy working relationships.

So what are the extra pressures that confront a communications director during a downturn in consumer spending? Inevitably there are constraints on staff and budgets but these are not going to go away. The sector is more value and cost-conscious and is operating within a more global market with more demanding and aware customers.

Major elements of the job remain. Downturn or not, the comms director needs a good relationship with the CEO and the chairman. For the comms director to operate effectively, he or she needs to have the backing of the CEO and the recognition that well-thought-out and well-delivered communications, both internally and externally, can contribute to the bottom line.

While this may sound obvious, it does not always happen, even at major retail brands.

For a retail business to grow, the comms director must also have excellent relationships across the marketing, trading, planning, HR and finance sections of the company. It is a division that should be seen as a centre of excellence and added value, not just the department that will deliver spin.

It goes without saying that he or she needs to build a network of external contacts across a wide range of groups, including media, business, investors and NGOs. This does not happen overnight and takes time and authority.

There is no blueprint setting out the retail comms director's responsibilities. Some have investor relations, planning, public affairs, press office, media, customer relations and environment all rolled into their brief. Others work on some of these disciplines, while some concentrate on legal issues, marketing and the chairman's office.

Whatever the case, the comms director should act as a co-ordinator to ensure consistency of message. In some retailers, the comms director is the main company spokesperson apart from financial presentations. But when times are tough, you need more than just the media on your side.

Internal comms is especially crucial during an economic downturn or financial crisis. This area may not be the direct responsibility of the comms director, but he should be able to influence and add weight in this area.

During consumer downturns, shopfloor workers are the front line to customers and it is important to make them well-informed ambassadors of the business. Demoralised in-store staff could be reflected in smaller shopping baskets and lower footfall.

Crisis point

During a crisis, the comms director has a critical role to play. While high-profile incidents such as food scares make the headlines, so many other types of crisis occur behind the scenes - and planning and swift action can prevent serious damage to the brand. This is not an area, therefore, that should be cut back on during cost-efficiency drives.

Retail comms is a 24/7 job that is exacting but exciting - you never know what will crop up. From my personal experience at Safeway, I bring you these tales of the unexpected: the first concerns a case of poisoning, affecting our own-brand tonic water in Scotland. Two families were in intensive care after drinking our tonic. I had a message from Strathclyde Police at 2.30am and members of my team were in the office at 3.30am dealing with the incident. The case resulted in the arrest of the husband of one of the families - he had tried to poison his wife so he could elope with his girlfriend.

I also had to deal with a petrol mix-up where Safeway had sold leaded petrol as unleaded and vice versa at a new station in the South-West.

The main problem was that the mistake had gone unnoticed for a period of time and involved more than 40,000 transactions. Through quick action, teamwork and major support from the company secretary, the high-profile situation eventually resulted in increased store traffic and improved brand reputation in the region.

This demonstrates the incredible breadth of the retail comms director's role. There are obviously extra pressures during a downturn, but companies need to think very carefully before they downsize the position.

Teresa Wickham was Safeway corporate affairs director from 1990 to 1996.

She is currently chief executive of consultancy TWA Communications.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in