Conducting communications for retail businesses has always been a complicated task, but in light of recent headwinds facing the industry, it has never been more important to the success in the sector. If storefronts continue to close at their current rate, walking down Madison Avenue or driving through the local mall could look very different in coming years.

With traditional brick-and-mortar stores confronting fundamental challenges from online retailers like Amazon, a years-long decline in foot traffic at malls and shopping centers, and store closings among household names like Macy’s, Sears, and J.C. Penney, it is a daunting time for retailers. Further challenges lie ahead if Congress advances its proposed Border Adjustment Tax policy, which will weigh heavily on import-reliant retailers.

Communications for retail businesses are challenging not only because these obstacles are complex, but because there are multiple constituencies that need to be addressed. A company’s brand has to entice consumers to make purchases, while at the same time, the business must address shareholders, vendors, lenders, employees and landlords. Too often, these separate audiences hear conflicting messages about the stores’ success and viability.

When a retailer is in trouble, it is difficult to find a balance among the competing priorities of encouraging customers to buy products, assuring employees of job security, and convincing vendors to continue product shipments, while simultaneously communicating with lenders and landlords about financial troubles and payment shortfalls.

So, how should a retailer go about managing these priorities in a crisis?

The critical component is to understand that these communications need to be carefully planned in advance, and can’t be implemented on the fly. An experienced public relations firm can help a retailer identify when which parties need to be told what, and then orchestrate a coordinated response.

Centralizing communications efforts through an agency will ensure that reporters calling with questions will be given consistent replies, and that store managers will be working from the same script when delivering news to employees.

In addition to having resources like established media relationships and specialized writing skills, an outside PR firm can also act as an honesty-broker, a checkpoint to ensure a company’s communications remain trustworthy and credible.

Successful retail communications rely on emphasizing a business’s strengths to the right audiences, regardless of how well the company is doing. If a retailer can’t articulate its story and what distinguishes it from its competitors, not only will it be ineffective in marketing its brand to consumers, it won’t be able to convey its strategy to stakeholders.

– Doug Allen

Imange via Wikimedia Commons