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From Home Furnishing Business

Taming the PR Beast

By Powell Slaughter

Hints on staying on bad PR, enhancing your brand

Sometimes you just get surprised. Universal Furniture CEO Jeff Scheffer was working on the road—way on the road in the Middle East—when he got word last June of a headline-making controversy surrounding Paula Deen, the Southern chef who’d lent her name to a highly successful licensed collection at Universal. She was accused of making racial slurs in a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual discrimination.

“I was in Dubai, we’d just gotten in from Kuwait,” Scheffer recalled. “We were all tired, and we went downstairs for a late bite to eat. I went back to my room and was working on my tablet, and I got an e-mail from (Universal Vice President of Marketing) Kevin Miller saying I’d better take a look at this. The news was just breaking.

“It wasn’t what I expected to see at one in the morning,” he said.


Robert Pritchard, a professor at Oklahoma University, served 25 years as public affairs officer for the U.S. Navy. He is a fellow of the Public Relations Society of America, and chairs PRSA’s educational affairs committee. During his years with the armed forces, he was no stranger to handling tough public relations situations. He had advice for companies facing negative publicity.

“Crisis management was the bulk of my experience,” Pritchard said. “The first thing to do is not hide. Analyze the situation—sometimes saying nothing is the best thing, but you always have to acknowledge the situation. “A good PR person can help avoid crises by recognizing a smoldering situation that could flare up,” he said.

Second, never lie. “Be truthful, and your message has to be consistent,” he said. “In my experience, 95 to 97 percent of the time if you present the right information, people make the right decision about you. “Sometimes you need to get poked in the eye and make changes. The Chinese word for crisis incorporates the word opportunity, and you should look at a crisis as a chance to improve. You need to be quick to respond, consistent, true and transparent.”


When the Deen controversy hit the news, Universal tried to get out in front of it as quickly as possible. “I believe the news broke on a Thursday, and we talked with Paula over the weekend,” Scheffer said. “With everything moving so quickly, we felt it was important to take our time and not over-react or knee-jerk. We watched and listened on a number of fronts—the developing news, what our own people were saying. We did come out with a statement to our customers fairly quickly that we were examining the situation.

“The first thing we did was to bring our own folks together and explain what happened,” he said. “We don’t tolerate discrimination—we have a lot of diversity in our company, and we’re richer for it. We also talked with the other people in our building—Legacy Classic’s here, too.”

The company also held a conference call with its sales force and sent a letter to sales representatives to put in customers’ hands. “The other part of that conversation is that since things were moving so fast, a lot of people were rushing to judgment, and others were coming to her defense,” Scheffer said. “Wrapped around that was a recognition that we’re going to watch and listen, and take the time we need to make the best decision.”


In the end, Universal stuck with Paula Deen, and Scheffer said the reaction to its decision was overwhelmingly positive.

“Our phones lit up the day we made the announcement,” Scheffer said of Universal’s decision to continue its association with Deen. “Our Facebook page got something like 2,500 likes in a 24-hour period.”

The good news of a PR flap is that in many cases, people’s attention wonders elsewhere in an era of 24-7 news and viral outbreaks on social media. “We saw a 20 percent dip in (Paula Deen) orders in the five weeks after the news broke, but by six weeks it was back to normal, and we resumed growing with the brand,” Scheffer noted. “I’m sure there may be something we should have done differently or could have done better, but at the end of the day

I think people gave us good marks for the way we handled a difficult decision. “I don’t profess to be an expert, but I think the biggest (lesson) is that in a 24-7 news cycle and what seems like an instant gratification world where someone wants an immediate answer, you have to remain calm and not knee-jerk. You gather as much information as you can. You watch, you listen, you look at the facts, but it’s your decision and you have to trust your gut—after looking at everything.”


Public relations isn’t always about crisis management— there’s a big upside in using it to build your brand and tell about your participation in the communities you serve. San Diego-based Jerome’s Furniture expanded last year into the Los Angeles area, and good PR helps gain a foothold.

PR is a critical component in brand building,” said Jerome’s CEO Lee Goodman. “The third-party credibility aspect really goes a long way with the consumer who is tired of a world filled with advertising. “It’s critical to be relevant and interesting, or no one (media or consumer) will care about your message. It’s also important for your PR strategy to reflect who you are as a company. Do good things and let people know what you’re doing. It really comes down to that. We have long believed that as a furnisher of homes it is important for us to be good neighbors to our community. We are proud of how we give back. Sometimes, we get enough credit, some days we don’t, but we always rest well at night knowing we are working hard to do good things in the communities we serve.”


Got a funky promotion going on, something that really hooks up with your community? Make it an opportunity to toot your horn in the market you serve. When Harkness Furniture in Tacoma, Wash., offered customers free furniture if the Seattle Seahawks scored a touchdown on their first Super Bowl kick-off return, they figure it was a safe bet. Well, the Seahawks’ Percy Harvin did just that to open the first half in January.

Harkness’ initial promotion hadn’t gotten much ink, and there wasn’t a lot of hype even after Harvin’s return. The process of paying out to its customers, though, created an opportunity—for a party. “After the actual run back in the Super Bowl, we didn’t get quite as much publicity on the front side,” said Harkness Furniture Owner Dave Harkness. “It was when we held the party. We’d insured the promotion, and the insurance company required us to get signatures from all the winners that they’d purchased furniture on this day and for this amount. It would take about four weeks for the checks to process, and that gave us time to think about how we wanted to handle it.”

Harkness personally called all 65 winners to explain the process and to get them back to the store to sign the paperwork. “We got a lot of mileage out of that alone,” Harkness said. “We wanted to capitalize on this and make it a truly special event. When we came up with this idea, we didn’t dream they’d actually return their opening kickoff for a touchdown. We decided to throw a big party for all the winners.”

In addition to their reimbursement checks, customers who’d participate in the promotion got an 8-by-10 color photo of the run-back; and a chance at five reproductions of the local newspaper’s Super Bowl story. “I think there’ll be a big following if we do something like this again,” Harkness said. “We can show that we’ve had winners, and people shouldn’t miss out on the chance. We think we’ll have big participation.”

Among other coverage, Harkness Furniture ended up on the local front page with the party. “We were on the 5:30 and 6 o’clock news the night of the party, and the story got picked up by AP (The Associated Press),” Harkness said. “I’m not one much for Twitter, but our marketing guy made a Tweet that Percy Harvin re-Tweeted on his feed, and he has something like 200,000 followers. We got a ‘thank you’ signed by all 65 contest winners, and I’ll mail that to Percy Harvin … We want him to feel a part of it.” According to Harkness, who spoke in mid-APRIL, business has been booming ever since. “We had a record February and President’s Day, and APRIL is off to a great start, too,” he said. “Our business has just flourished since the Super Bowl, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. “I think, too, that those 65 winners are customers for life who’ll talk to their friends about the store.” 


Public relations by itself is not going to help a brand that doesn’t deliver on its promise and add value. “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” Pritchard said. “Well, you can, but it’s still a pig. Public relations can help a brand in two ways. First, it helps an organization identify and understand its core values.

“Second, PR, if it’s done the way I teach it, is the bridge between the organization and its customers. It helps the organization’s values line up with its line of business. For example, furniture retailers may think they’re in the business of selling furniture. A public relations approach to that is that they help people lead better lives.”

PR should integrate your message across all platforms— online, marketing, in the store—and to help everyone who touches the customer articulate that promise.

“A brand is not a name or a logo, it’s a promise,” Pritchard said. “Take Motel 6. Motel 6’s promise is a comfortable place to stay that’s the lowest price of any national chain. The people they talk to are frugal people.

“The first thing to do is understand with whom you’re interacting, not just sending information, but receiving something. “The communication strategies must be integrated, and PR is the focus of this particular effort. Identify every point of communication, and explain the message to everyone who touches the consumer.” HFB

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