Relations with customers and prospects

In serialising chapters from the 1948 book Your Public Relations since October 2013, I have been struck by the relevance of the authors’ thinking and practice, often in total contrast to arguments that PR today is more strategic than in the past.

The ten chapters featured so far seem to counter the progressive perspective of PR’s history. The next chapter, discussed in this post, however, is different and feels remarkably old-fashioned in many respects.

Its title: Relations with Customers and Prospects, is essentially what today may be thought of as marketing rather than public relations.

The focus seems very Mr Selfridge*, which isn’t surprising as its author Lew Hahn, was president of the National Retail Dry Goods Association. This body was formed in 1911 by 37 stores as founding members. Lew Hahn was initially its executive secretary and stayed with the association (with various job titles), until he retired in 1948. It is unusual today to spend such a length of time with a single employer.

Today the National Retail Dry Goods Association is known as the National Retail Foundation (NRF), and most of us are probably unfamiliar with the meaning of ‘dry goods’ – which referred to “textiles, ready-to-wear clothing, and notions (a term in sewing/haberdashery for various small objects or accessories), as distinguished from hardware and groceries”. According to the NRF, the original name “reflected more on the industry’s past than its future” even in 1911.

In Hahn’s chapter, he writes: “The best known of the public relations tools is advertising” and although the discipline was by 1948 well established in Madison Avenue, New York, the Mad Men era was yet to arrive. Hahn’s views on the subject are more traditional arguing that “good advertising – by newspaper, magazine, display, radio, direct mail, and word of mouth – contains elements of both… institutional and product advertising” and that the “the use of fairly elaborate external publications… is one of the more expensive public relations tools, but a very effective one when properly used”.

His seems a gentler perspective than the hyperbolic, promotional culture with which we are surrounded today. We are so familiar with everything being marketed at us, and being urged to market ourselves, that it is inevitable a chapter focusing on ‘customers and prospects’ from 1948 will seem dated. Arguably public relations itself has played a significant role in changing modern society, and I believe, reflects these changes in the emphasis of so many practitioners that the job of PR is essentially a marketing one. That demonstrates a 180 degree shift from Hahn’s inclusion of marketing techniques under the responsibility of PR.

The focus of Hahn’s chapter is on stores as retailers, reflecting a narrower focus of ‘customers and prospects’ than we take today. Of course, Hahn couldn’t have foretold how 21st century retail would be a global phenomenon, dominated by international brands, with purchasing largely through credit cards and virtual payments (very little cash based spending), and the online marketplace accessed increasingly via clicks on our smartphones and other mobile devices.

Hahn notes “one of the most successful merchants I know – and he is successful because of his mastery of the public relations of retailing – is Wade G. McCargo, president of H.V. Baldwin & Co., a small department store in Richmond, Va”. He continues to set out a homely tale that evidences “the highest type of good public relations on the part of the retailer, not only with the outside world but within the store family where all good public relations must begin”.

This simple approach in using nostalgic, small-town examples does contain some interesting thoughts. One of these is about customer relations. Hahn states: “Anything can be sold once to somebody, but an organization becomes successful as it develops customers who come back again and again.” He argues for an integrated approach based on “outstandingly important elements”, reflecting a broad stakeholder perspective:

  • Employee relations
  • Advertising, including direct mail
  • Press and radio publicity
  • Customer services
  • Community service
  • Vendor relations
  • Stockholder relations
  • Relations with lawmakers

He sees employees as representatives “for top management as far as the customer is concerned”, with all levels and types of staff having “important public relations functions”. As such he calls for coordination of their “indoctrination”, training and working conditions, within the overall public relations policy.

“The employee is the most important factor in that two-way communications”, and “It is only through good employer-employee communications that corporations can maintain proper contact with their customers”, Hahn asserts.

Radio, direct mail and personal letters are considered as part of advertising. In particular, Hahn emphasises the importance of authentic, personalised messages.

Surprisingly, especially if you associate traditional PR with media relations, Hahn devotes only two short paragraphs each to The Press and The Radio. In contrast, Customer Services “which give the company a reputation for soundness in its human relations” is considered over two pages. Hahn pays particular attention to ideas such as free delivery, personal shoppers, gift-wrapping, classes, children’s talent competitions, thrift and savings clubs, and book reviews presented to customer audiences.

Overall though, the tone and context of the chapter feels of its time, but serves to illustrate how much the world has changed (not always for the better) since 1948.

Editors’ Note: In their conclusion to the chapter, Glenn & Denny Griswold, discuss how public relations has almost “equal rank” in influencing “buying habits” as the quality and price of goods and services. They note:

“Competition of regional and national organizations has done much to level the prices structure and few organizations which depend on low prices alone exist for any length of time. Standardization and the popularity of trade-marked goods have reduced the advantage of those who depended primarily on quality in competitive markets. And so today the outstanding difference which marks the successful manufacturer or merchandiser is more likely to be the strength of the human relations he maintains with his customer.”

This is argued to be a growing trend, proven by reference to customer surveys. They set out how to undertake “a scientific and comprehensive survey to discover exactly what are the customer attitudes, not only toward the product and service, but also toward the institution and its policies.” They end with several examples to illustrate their points regarding how “in one way or another customer relations overflow into almost every area of public relations.”

Addendum: It is hard to imagine any modern public relations textbook taking such a narrow retailer approach when considering “relations with customers and prospects” today. We are more familiar with focus on marketing PR or integrated marketing communications, often at the expense of a wider stakeholder relationship role for public relations. Indeed, the promotional nature of much communications enacted by organisations has become ubiquitous. Over the last 50 years, this was evident in public relations seeking to secure media coverage as a priority. This attention has more recently shifted increasingly online into social media in particular. Another aspect of our modern world is a need to moneterise all communications channels, and demonstrate return on investment for all communications activities. As such, while Hahn highlights the need to earn customer goodwill and enhance organisational reputation, he did not position public relations as responsible only for ‘earned’ channels. In this, a case can be made for public relations oversight of all means of communication with all stakeholders, including ‘customers and prospects’. Proving a direct financial return, however, is not something that Hahn considered, as evaluation (beyond the Griswolds’ reference to customer surveys) is missing from the chapter.

Read all the chapters in our series of posts from the 1948 book: Your Public Relations, via this link to contents list.

* If you are unfamiliar with the story of Harry Selfridge (which has been adapted for a successful British television show), he was born in 1858 in Ripon, Wisconsin, where his father ran a general store. He worked as a stock boy at Marshall Field’s store in Chicago, where he developed his career over the next 25 years including having responsibility for advertising. Moving to London in 1906, he founded his own department store and during 30 years at Selfridges transformed retailing.

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2 Replies to “Relations with customers and prospects

  1. Mairead – thank you for your comment. You are right about the employee attention to service in such stores, and of course, this went further than “personal shoppers” (as we’d deem it today), with home delivery and even credit accounts, because there was that level of local knowledge and trust. That we certainly don’t have very much today.

    But, I think that despite all the talk about a lack of community, loyalty and so on in relation to modern consumerism, where service and mutual trust is at the heart of retail, it shows. Of that’s because any recognition of the validity of customer-employee relationships in a genuine way is very rare.

    Sadly we have more evidence of a Taylor-type efficiency approach in many retail businesses. I see this in the resistance to unionisation and payment of living wages, through to the on-demand and zero-hours culture that all force precarious employment conditions on primarily the lowest paid in society. Indeed, many retailers seem most interested in ensuring there are no human faces in their businesses either shifting online or automating the buying processes in stores.

    How can employees (if any are left) either be engaged wirh their work, or enhance the shopper’s experience (whether face to face, a call centre or in a virtual environment) under these conditions? And in turn, how can any consumer demonstrate any loyalty or trust in a business that fails to offer a human face?

  2. Interesting to think how different retail (of dry goods) was back then. Such stores, also known as draperies, were very much full service to the customer, rather than the self-service we now know department stores to be. So an employee would work with the customer throughout their store visit, thus becoming a very important element of the shopper’s experience, and hopefully leaving them disposed to shop there again and to recommend others to do so.

    While we might find such attention a bit smothering these days, this is often how dedicated men’s stores still work. And once in the door, those men are more likely to leave with shopping bag in hand.

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