Holiday PR in full swing

Brian Brown, ReporterThis week, I wrote a story about the things retailers are doing to get ready for Black Friday, and I was a bit surprised by how tough it was.

In concept, it was simple enough. I knew I’d call a handful of retailers and hopefully get at least three to talk to me about their efforts. I’d set up a photo, perhaps of someone setting up a display, and I would pull in details on a couple of national studies and their projections for the holiday season.

If done correctly, my little article could give the reader insight into that world as they themselves prepare to clip coupons, navigate too crowded aisles and wait, wait and wait in line.

For the most part, I think I did what I set out to. It just was tougher than I expected. Let me explain.

I knew going into this week, based on previous experience, national retailers guard their communications with media tightly, especially this time of year. I can’t just call up John Doe manager of a Wal-Mart Supercenter and expect him to wax poetic on painted trees and 60-inch TVs. He can’t or won’t. He could get in trouble. Someone up the ladder has to make the approval.

To give you some background, in years past when I’ve done similar stories, I’ve focused largely on local retailers, in part, because of the walls large and/or public companies put up to guard information. This year, I was determined to break down those walls. Or, at least, give it my best effort.

So this week, I spoke with folks from the aforementioned Wal-Mart, as well as RadioShack and Kmart. In all cases, interviews had to be coordinated through national media relations personnel.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) couldn’t or wouldn’t grant me an interview with a local store manager, but I was able to speak with Erica Jones, senior manager of communications. Jones was nice enough, but I had the feeling the whole time I was getting a well-rehearsed pitch.

“We feel like we’ve got a great plan in place, and we are ready to prove once again that with Black Friday, nobody does that better than Wal-Mart,” Jones said.

What I suspected was right. Jones was mimicking a statement I received from another Wal-Mart spokeswoman via email.

In addition to reaching out to a Wal-Mart spokesman I talked to before, Daniel Morales, which led to my conversation with Jones, I requested an interview through the corporate website. In a response to that request, I received statements on the company’s plans from Debbie Serr that included: “Christmas is the busiest time of the year for us … We have a great plan in place and are ready to prove once again that nobody does Black Friday better than Wal-Mart.”

Susan Dial, assistant manager of Kmart on South Glenstone Avenue, spoke with me on a three-way call with a company representative who helped set up the interview. I think she did her best to stick to pre-approved company messages.

“I can just say that everyone here is excited for the holiday season and Kmart does offer a lot of great deals – deals that people like and want,” Dial said when asked about sales expectations for this year.

When I spoke with Joe Cordell, store manager for the RadioShack in the South Oaks Centre – an interview that could only be set up by a media relations professional – I struggled to get specifics about what his store was doing. He kept referring to notes on this year’s national promotions, such as Tech the Halls and Name your Deals. Again, sales expectations were off limits.

Following the interview, the RadioShack spokeswoman who had reviewed a fact check I offered, requested I pull or change a quote from Cordell that referenced the Super Bowl. For Cordell, Black Friday represents the Super Bowl of retail, but the spokeswoman said the National Football League is protective of its rights and usage in connection with the football classic.

We kept the quote in the story and even referenced it in the headline. We would have anyway, but we felt bolstered in doing so because Wal-Mart’s Jones also compared Black Friday to the Super Bowl.

Maybe Wal-Mart should further sanitize its talking points next year.

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