Andrew Cave examines the role of retailers' press departments in dealing with customers
Andrew Cave is a freelance journalist, who writes the weekly business profile in The Sunday Telegraph as well as several other regular features for the Daily Telegraph. He has recently published his first book, The Secrets of CEOs
Being asked if they really are bona fide reporters can be one of the most irritating things that journalists encounter when they call a press office of a supermarket group or other retailer.
It rarely seems to happen when they call companies in other sectors, and their annoyance is compounded when they give copious details of their enquiry only to be told that the person they're speaking to is not a press officer but will pass on their query to someone else. On too many occasions, it appears, the call is not returned.
'At the times I've had to deal with many of them, I've felt very much like an interloper,' says James Moore, deputy business editor at The Independent.
He adds: 'It's fine if you're a specialist retail correspondent who they know and you've got their mobile phone number but other journalists can be treated by retail press offices with a lot of suspicion.'
There is of course a reason for this treatment. The flipside of the journalist experience is the sheer volume of calls that retail press offices receive, not only from bona fide media, but from customers complaining about faulty products or store opening times, students wanting case studies for their assignments and even local councils seeking information.
Responding in adversity
So how do retailers respond, particularly in a world where anybody with a keyboard and a modem can set up a blog, claim to be a journalist and bypass the waiting times at customer service call centres?
'We do get some weird calls,' says Alistair McKinnon-Musson, deputy chairman of financial PR agency Hudson Sandler, which handles all non-fashion media calls for high street fashion chain Next and has worked for a number of other retail clients.
'We get a lot of students ringing up because they're doing case studies and they want information. The problem is that if you get one of these calls, you know you're going to get 40 because it's obviously a lecture situation where they've all been asked to do the same thing.
'If you're in the press office of a DIY group you get lots of people ringing up saying there's something wrong with their kitchen or they can't put something together.'
Calls to retail press offices can indeed be extraordinarily diverse. At Sainsbury's, which has five people in its corporate press office and ten in consumer PR, press officer Tom Parker says: 'Ours is one of the numbers that it's easier for people to use, which I think leads to us receiving a lot of calls. We spend a lot of time directing people to more appropriate departments.'
Jonathan Church, media relations director at Tesco, says this should not happen if it is easy to locate the customer service number. But the 12 people in Tesco's public relations office still get calls that are not strictly their domain.
'We get a lot of calls coming from people who've read something about us in a newspaper and want to discuss it with us,' he says. 'Generally, we try to talk to these people. If you're a consumer, there's nothing worse than being passed from pillar to post.
'I actually find it incredibly useful talking to customers. One of the frustrating things with journalists is that they don't have the time to come and see our stores but customers do and you can engage with them about it.'
At Marks & Spencer, where there are six people in the corporate PR team and 15 in product PR, corporate PR manager Clare Wilkes says press officers have to deal with hundreds of calls ranging from job applications for Christmas jobs to grumbles about utility bills.
'The weirdest call I received was right in the middle of Philip Green's non-bid for the company when someone rang up asking if they could bring a horse into one of our stores,' she laughs. 'That was very odd and there have been lots of strange conversations with people.
'Our numbers are there at the end of press releases on the Internet so we do get lots and lots of calls. When we launched our environmental Plan A campaign, we received hundreds in the first week from councils and small businesses wanting to know how they could be involved.'
More than media
Wilkes says retail press offices also play an often time-consuming role in advising other parts of the business on issues that may eventually emerge into the public eye.
She also believes that the advent of social media will mean that retail press offices may have to change the ways that they operate.
'Everyone considers themselves a journalist these days, whether they blog, tweet or post something on their Facebook wall and they want to deal with the department that deals with the press,' she says. 'We're the interface of the brand and we do think of ourselves as corporate public relations, rather than press relations. But I think this idea of the PR department at the centre, controlling companies' public communication, is going to have to move on because there are so many blogs and Twitter posts that are happening all the time. I do think this is something that companies are going to have to consider.'
Nick Agarwal, strategic communications director at Asda, says the rise of social media means press offices have to be on top of what's going on with the public as well as conventional media.
'We recently found out by monitoring Twitter that someone had reported a load of Asda promotional leaflets had been dumped on a street corner in Leeds,' he says. 'Five years ago, we would have had the Yorkshire Evening Post ringing up to tell us about that but we were able to find out about it and clear them up because we even got the call.'
Public back in the title
Agarwal, who has an eight-strong team in Asda's PR department, believes that new media is putting an emphasis back on the 'public' part of public relations and that traditional press offices have to respond.
'We contacted a wine blogger the other day, just an ordinary member of the public, to ask if he wanted to review some of our wines,' he says. 'We also had a customer contact the press office in September, telling us that his child couldn't get hold of a certain Star Wars doll he was mad about. Our buyer sorted it for them by sending on some samples we'd received. Keeping close to customers keeps us grounded in our business. There's certainly a blurring going on between customer service and traditional press office functions and I think this is something that will continue.'
As well as enabling social media, the Internet has also changed the way that journalists and others communicate with public relations offices.
'The most important change of late,' says Alistair Eperon, the former Boots director of corporate affairs who now runs reputation management firm Eperon Consulting, 'is that most contact from and to the media is by email and other online activity, generally undertaken by smaller numbers of people who are therefore under even greater time pressures.'
Tom Wells, managing director at The Gyroscope Consultancy, a procurement and management consultancy for clients of the PR industry, adds: 'Retail press offices have a very high service ethic and respond much more effectively than other parts of their organisations when there's a customer complaint.
'Anyone in communications knows that if you want to make a complaint, you're much better off calling the press office because you get switched-on, engaged people who pick up the phone outside of office hours and that they are really well connected with the businesses they work for.'
Wells, who was a director on retail accounts including Woolworth's, Somerfield, Comet and Superdrug when he worked for PR agency Paragon Communications, has had some odd calls himself, including one from a journalist following up an allegation of customers sexually harassing characters dressed as Tom and Jerry in a store. 'Someone apparently tried to pull Jerry's trousers down,' he recalls.
He feels that the high-profile status of the retail press office for the public as well as journalists is also due to the prominent positions in society that supermarkets in particular now occupy.
'Tesco is involved in my local school while Sainsbury's is refurbishing my local park,' he says. 'The British retail market is also highly concentrated in the hands of a small number of large retailers. Tesco is almost as high profile now as any of the brands it sells. Retailers have established themselves in politics, the environment and society as well as just shopping nowadays so what they do now goes beyond selling someone a cheap can of beans. They are victims of their own success but sometimes it comes back to bite them on the backside.'