Monday, February 4

Missing Targets: Target PR

Last week, the public relations department at Target learned something about new media: it’s interconnected with old media (if there is such a thing anymore) and the links and lines between the two are not always clear.

The New York Times followed up on a post by ShapingYouth, a blog about the impact of marketing on children. The apparent conflict arose over an advertising campaign that has been criticized, as The New York Times describes it, because it “depicted a woman splayed across a big target pattern — the retailer’s emblem — with the bull’s-eye at her crotch.”

Personally, I never made the connection. But there are plenty of advertising folks and consumers who did.

But this post really isn’t about that, despite having years of research that relates to sexually suggestive advertising as well as cognitive thinking by consumers. Nor is it really about ShapingYouth author Amy Jussel’s approach to contacting Target or Target’s ill-advised response, given that it wasn’t even true.

“Unfortunately we are unable to respond to your inquiry because Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets … This practice is in place to allow us to focus on publications that reach our core guest.”

There are a number of public relations and social media-related blogs that have already weighed in on the subject, most of them recognizing that Target may not have needed to respond to Jussel’s aggressively assumptive inquiry, but delivered an inappropriate response. Here’s a sampling:

“So, let the lesson be loud and clear: Bloggers are media too!” — Speak Media

“…despite the ridiculous sentiments of Jussel, Target’s response was even more out-of-line.” — The PR News Blog

“In an ideal world, PR pros should always strive to enter into a conversation with any journalist that submits a reasonably legitimate media query. In reality, however, it's not scalable to offer the same level of responsiveness across the board.” — The Flack

Answering Social Media Inquiries Is A Function Of Public Relations

While scalability to address social media seems to be an issue for many public relations departments (even at larger companies like Target, apparently), it doesn’t make sense to me that any company would dismiss a blogger’s inquiry given that they wouldn’t dismiss the same inquiry by an average customer. And therein lies the real rub.

Companies are becoming too hung up on a definition of “blogger” as a noun and not considering that “blogging” is best described as a verb. Unfortunately, when it is applied as a noun, everyone gets a bit wacky and dismisses all the other nouns that might apply.

Case in point: Jussel is not only a blogger, she is also a consumer advocate and Target customer. I doubt Target would have dismissed either of these definitions as readily as they dismissed Jussel as a blogger, regardless of her approach.

Jussel is not alone. Most “bloggers” have multiple labels that emblazon their name badges. (I have several dozen; take your pick.) Let’s consider that.

Some bloggers are journalists; some are not. Some demonstrate at least some semblance of being one, even if it is more op-ed commentary as opposed to objective reporting; some do not. Some want to be engaged by companies; some do not. Some … well, you get the point. But among all these titles and monikers and definitions and styles, there is one thing every company must consider.

All bloggers are consumers and possibly customers. Period.

Given that most companies would not brush off consumers the same way — “We are unable to respond to your inquiry because we do not address the concerns of customers because it’s not scalable to offer the same level of responsiveness across the board.” EGAD! — it doesn’t make sense that a public relations department would brush off bloggers, consumers who may publicly write about it.

So what’s the solution? Pretty simple, really. At minimum, even if the company has some erroneous anti-blogger policy, public relations departments need to be able to identify who is making the inquiry and then route the call to the appropriate department if the appropriate department is not public relations.

That’s not a social media policy. It’s common sense.

And if Target had applied even some semblance of it, they may looked like heroes instead of something else. It takes far fewer words and follow up to simply send out something along the lines of … “Thank you for your inquiry. The advertisement is not meant to be sexually suggestive. However, we have forwarded your concern to our [insert department].”

Sure, as a 3-second solution, it’s not perfect. But then again, I wasn’t shooting to be interviewed by The New York Times or irritating several thousand customers. I was simply considering what the lowest level of response might be, assuming the company wants to pretend that social media doesn’t exist.



Anonymous said...

Thanks Rich... You've explained perfectly why I am no longer calling myself a "blogger." It's so companies like Target will treat me like a person instead of a sub-journalist.

Rich on 2/4/08, 4:34 PM said...


Thank you for the deeply written comment.

You're right. Many companies don't treat journalists like people (and freelancers below that, and bloggers below that).

Hey, the way I see it, call yourself anything you want. I'd still take your call and/or respond to your email. I know a few CEOs who would too, even if their public relations departments do not.


Geoff_Livingston on 2/4/08, 6:39 PM said...

One day soon companies will get this universally. It's not that far off... Well maybe a decade or so, but they'll get it. It's about integration.

Anonymous said...

I really think this story has gone off track. While I agree that our "blogger" is a potential customer, so is every American, and we don't expect the PR dept to respond to every single complaint with advertising and marketing, yet. There are simply too many of us writing these days.

Target would have been better off ignoring the response altogether. A simple "we thank you for your response and will take it into account for future campaigns..." bs line would have been better received as well.

Is the lesson that we should start training our PR pros as customer service reps? Perhaps, but I'd like to think the real lesson is that the line between general public and journalist has been erased.

Rich on 2/4/08, 9:18 PM said...

@Geoff Glad you liked it. I think you're right. They'll learn eventually.

@djlitten I think you express some great points that I wasn't able to include. So I'll give it a go in as casual comment.

I don't think companies are being overwhelmed by blogger requests. Most issues that bloggers write about reside within the public observation, opinion, etc. and do not require calls. Most bloggers have no interest in contacting companies or being more journalistic. (I know because they keep telling me that, over and over.)

I don't think many public relations departments allocate their time properly, based on the simple fact that journalists are complaining that they are pitched non-news items too often. (Non-news that some bloggers might be interested in, ironically.)

It seems to me they would be better served by sending real news to journalists, placing non-news to the company Web site or blog, and fielding some blogger emails now and again; saving the journalists time, the department time, and making bloggers happy. (Happy bloggers are a good thing). However, I also think it is disingenuous for companies that claim bloggers don't fact check when some of these same companies create barriers to do so.

The real lesson here is: if you don't manage the message, the message will manage you (but I can't include it every post as much as I would like too.) In this case, the message managed Target all the way to The New York Times. It was a lesson that also prompted Target to change its blogger policy. So why learn the hard way?

Yes, I absolutely think public relations professionals need customer service training (and all departments for that matter) because everyone is in customer service, internally and externally.

I am not suggesting that public relations field every request nor spin out BS to bloggers. What I am suggesting is that once the public relations department (or anyone who receives a call) is contacted, it identifies the blogger so they can make a better determination if it is something they should pursue or perhaps hand off to customer service. Public relations people used to do that for me now and again, long before I even knew what a blog was.

So no BS; I think that the request really needs to be handed over to the appropriate department: An investor/blogger (the real bosses) might be best served by investor relations.

Your last line is very close. The line between the general public and journalists has been blended (but not completely erased). Personally, it's a non-issue for me. While I don't often contact companies (maybe once a month or so), those I do are always prompt, professional, and quick to respond. I appreciate them for it. And, I don't take personally on the rare occasion they are not.

So, would ignoring the request have been better? Maybe in this case, given the response was so ill advised. As a general rule, no. Hard rules get people in trouble.

I cannot thank you enough for allowing me to think through a few things. That's what makes a blog so much fun. Articles used to be one way communication.


For another view, definitely check out this one too.


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