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Should retailers talk to the trade press?

May 30, 2014

Some retailers generously talk to trade magazines for several solid reasons. Others don't — apparently for a separate host of solid reasons.

That's why Warren Thayer, editor of Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer and a RetailWire BrainTrust panelist, frequently consults vendors, competing retailers, brokers, SEC filings and financial analysts when researching one of his magazine's in-depth profiles of many of the country's grocers.

I collaborated with Warren on a list of reasons retailers do and don't talk to the trade:

WHY NOT TO TALK:

The main reason not to talk appears to be that competitive information will be shared. The reluctance seems to be increasing with the consolidation of regional chains into national chains. When the country was full of regional chains that didn't compete against each other every day, there was less risk in sharing ideas and more of a sense of community. The internet has added many more national competitors.

Talking can also be time-consuming and risky. One investor relations officer flatly told me he didn't want to waste his executives' time with journalist interviews. Execs also risk being wrongly portrayed, whether outright misquoted or misunderstood. Often, the trade journalist is an inexperienced young reporter learning the ropes.

And then there are introverts versus extroverts. Some don't seek the limelight. Some want complete control over what ultimately appears in print. Some fear an interview with a promising exec will result in that person being headhunted by a competitor.

WHY TO TALK:

Trade magazines, with the aim of being the voice of the often close-knit business community, can disseminate information about cutting-edge technology, best practices, consumer research and studies on topics ranging from cross-merchandising to trucking to shopper behavior.

Retailers and vendors commenting on key topics keep the conversation going and help the industry (and themselves) move forward. These companies are also seen as leaders, and are more likely to have others share information with them.

Trade press features are also very often the seeds for stories in the financial press that ultimately reach the investment community. When good trade press writers are told "no comment" or have their queries ignored, they go to a wide variety of sources and may dig deeper than they might have otherwise. The result will be a story about the company as seen by its competitors and analysts who won't always have flattering things to say.

Discussion Questions:

What advice would you offer executives when they are questioned by a trade magazine? Is a blanket "no comment" policy a good or a bad idea?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How open should retailers be to talking to the trade press?

Comments:

Not a fan of "no comment." Instead pick your press/PR opportunities. Proprietary information that may benefit competitors is always off limits. For everything else be transparent using reliable and accurate information.

The press can be an ally or a foe. You can control the process.

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Richard J. George, Ph.D., Professor of Food Marketing, Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph's University

I had the pleasure of working with Warren on the perishable part of our store operations, to hopefully help independents gain some good insight on their operations. I enjoyed the process, and yes it takes some time, but the end result was very nice. I am not real big on internet surveys as they seem like a waste of time to me, but there are many ways to get your point across today, hence Retailwire.com, which all of us enjoy.

Always speak honestly, and share what you feel can help others in your situation. I understand the inside secrets that you need to keep for yourself, but there are other ways to make a positive impact on what needs to be said.

Thanks again Warren, for working with me, as it was enjoyable.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

"No comment" is a terrible idea and should never be used when talking to a reporter. It is funny how everyone wants to know who is doing what and how it is going, but no one wants to say anything!

So my advice is to share as much as one can without giving away the farm. A certain promotion or new implementation of technology may be helping a retailer, but one need not give out the "how much" is being saved or increased. Some major suppliers of technology have learned to implement something new at a very small retailer (5 or less stores) since they are more willing to speak to a reporter. It is not easy, but a lot of good, well seasoned reporters have gotten some great stories and more retailers need to open up if only just a bit.

If you want to know, you should want to share too!

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Frank Riso, Principal, Frank Riso Associates, LLC

As someone who has given advice and interviews to wily Warren, my advice to executives is to ask: "What is your objective for requesting my advice?"

A "No Comment" policy connotes you may be hiding something. That's bad.
Word of mouth by the trade or trade press have different agendas than word of mouth by consumers/customers.

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

Over the years I continue to marvel at some retailer's "secretive" posture when it comes to public thought leadership and specifically talking to the press. Certainly there are topics and details that are proprietarily sacrosanct.

However, when the topics involve progressive initiatives and company priorities, it has be have my experience that the retailers who are the notable thought leaders, are also the market share leaders.

As one stark example, during my days at Marsh Supermarkets, we published an internal study called the Marsh Super Study, revealing sales, profits, spatial performance and customer behavioral results specifically for five of our stores for an entire year. This report was published by Progressive Grocer, resulted in a Harvard Case Study and was presented world wide.

During the years following the study, we experienced positive comps and gained market share. Brands and other retail partners were attracted to Marsh given our reputation for our progressive category management structure and having reliable data.

I certainly do not expect the average retailer to emulate the Marsh model, but the point is...sharing results, data, and insights often opens more doors and provides an internal discipline that far outweighs any potential risk of losing competitive advantage.

Accordingly, I believe to this day that the "secretive" retailers are likely losing more than they are gaining by "keeping all their cards close to the vest."

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Mark Heckman, Principal, Mark Heckman Consulting

I could write a book on this topic - Tom and Warren, let me know if you're interested.

First, let me self-identify - I'm both a media relations consultant and journalist who grew up in a family that owned several supermarkets.

The journalist side of me wants retailers and suppliers to always be available to the media. There needs to be a free flow of information, transparency, etc. and the media helps with this process.

The PR part of me knows cooperation with the press isn't always good for the company for some of the reasons cited above, but also because the media sometimes gets news wrong or puts it in the wrong context. This, I should emphasize, is not usually their fault - reporters and editors are strapped for resources and their time doesn't allow for full vetting of every piece of content produced.

And the retailer side of me (it's still there, can't help it) is split. There are some developments/tactics/strategies that I don't want to reveal while I'm getting some competitive advantage from, but know that there are plenty of great ideas out there that could help the business. It's a tough call.

I suggest case-by-case reviews of opportunities and a start small approach for newcomers. The opportunities to start with are the ones with the least amount of risk - trend stories where you are not asked about proprietary issues or profile stories where the writer is willing to share the copy before its published. Make sure you prepare for any call with the media, even rehearse. Create lists of the points you want to make and go back to them several times to ensure the writer understands the issue and your take on it. There is much more (as indicated, I could write a book on this) but that's a good start.

I will say that a blanket no comment policy is a bad idea from all perspectives for a key reason - when the company is in the spotlight, positive or negative, it is critical to be able to connect with the right people to tell your story the right way.

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Ron Margulis, Managing Director, RAM Communications

Companies today need to have visible and favorable footprint in their industries, which usually requires (reasonable) participation in trade press.

The competition argument is irrelevant in our modern, always on, highly connected world. Your employees today will be competitors tomorrow, all of your documents will show up on the internet. Businesses need a strategy to win, in an environment when your competitors know everything about you. If your only strategy to win is hoping you can keep a secret, then you have bigger problems than your trade press strategy.

The HUGE reason you need to use Trade Press to build a great reputation in your industry is that you need to attract the best people in your industry and make them want to work with you. Talent is the #1 challenge for most of my clients, and being a desirable place to work starts with being known.

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Jason Goldberg, VP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

There are far more reasons not to talk than to talk...and most every reason given in the article to talk, actually strengthens the argument against talking, because most talking actions become a competitive advantage for those that don't talk. Talking with investor relations/analysts/press about great earnings releases, for example, can be a good reason to talk. However, use that opportunity to brag about how great your organization is run without giving away any trade secrets.

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Ralph Jacobson, Global Consumer Products Industry Marketing Executive, IBM

First, leverage this channel of communications. It's not just industry people read industry pubs. The more a retailer's name is out there in the communication channels, the better.

Next, be honest and be proud. Stand behind the company you represent and the people that make the business happen.

Last, make sure your PR team has some pre-cut, canned stories that you can use with different pubs. Telling stories is the way to be remembered.

If a reporter tries to drop you into some negative space that relates to recent news, pull yourself back to the center of the interview via a story that is not related to what they ask. You can re-route any reporter - you OWN the conversation. Do not avoid - just re-route.

Hit the press and make gains. Shops that avoid the press will change down the road. Avoiding press means hiding or a lack in image and brand confidence.

Be Retail. Be Proud. Abide!

Happy Friday!

TR
...

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Tom Redd, Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

Hire yourself a reputable public relations counselor or agency that can put together a strategic public relations plan, coach you on how to handle interviews with the press, and be prepared to confront any negative or unflattering coverage.

A "no comment" policy does absolutely nothing to help promote or maintain your reputation. It may even undermine it because it makes it appear that you are trying to hide or avoid something. It also decreases your ability to control your messaging.

Having a strong PR team in place with good media relations should be a must for any major retailer.

'RetailRetell'

As a long-time PR and publicity professional - (as well as practicing journalist) advising clients on how to work with the media and do media interviews - I believe that saying, "no comment" is the most negative, incendiary comment an interviewee can make. There's a way to say "no comment" and explain pleasantly WHY you have no comment, while still making yourself sound in-touch and intelligent. You don't want to create any bad feelings.

And if you slam your door to media by saying "no comment," you'll have to back-pedal (and worse) when you do want the media to work with you, and have a favorable feeling to how you conduct yourself and your business.

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Naomi K. Shapiro, Strategic Market Communications, Upstream Commerce

Walmart for many years was as tight-lipped as a large, publicly-held company could be and all it got it return was a lot of bad press. The parsimonious information for trade journals allowed Walmart's critics to hold forth unchallenged. This is a case history in why not talking to the trade press is a bad idea.

David Schulz, Contributing Editor, HomeWorld Business

My advice: whatever you do - or don't do - be polite (I can't imagine someone actually saying "no comment"... growing up in the [immediate] post-Watergate era, I translate that phrase into "I'm guilty as He**!!") I think Warren aptly summed up the OTOH vs. OTOH nature of the decision, but an exec should realize that taking the Fifth, so to speak, won't prevent a story from being written, it will just prevent him/her from having any chance to influence what is written.

'notcom'

Amazon is well-known for its largely "no comment" policy, even extending to its Hachette contract dispute being loudly played out now in a one-sided way in the media. Jeff Bezos addressed the issue at his company's annual meeting last week. Asked by a shareholder about Amazon's press policy, according to Geekwire, Bezos initially said, "I never think of us as secretive, I think of us as mostly quiet."

But he then said the areas Amazon competes in - retail, e-commerce and particularly technological devices - are all highly competitive and touted the advantages of remaining quiet. Bezos reportedly said, "We take great care to try and keep our product roadmaps quiet. I would love to know what Apple's product roadmap is. That would be very helpful to me. They work hard to keep their product roadmaps quiet...When you're competing against terrific companies like Apple and Samsung, and in AWS's case, terrific companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard, the list goes on, you really need to be cognizant of how your competitors are going to glean useful tidbits from seemingly harmless disclosures."

The full geekwire article is here.

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Tom Ryan, Managing Editor, RetailWire

If you are going to reveal important nuggets, make sure you extract something from the folks who will benefit. If your interview helps an audience, than make sure the vendor or whomever, gives you something in return for your openness. Vendors rely on this commentary and you should be able to get something in return.

Execution is hard, keep moving forward, make what you say obsolete.

Vahe Katros, Consultant, Plan B

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