Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Desperately Needed: Solar Input
Eleven days without sunshine, and we Napkins are getting antsy. Me, anyway. I'd have to do some research to know for sure, but it sure seems like it didn't used to be this way in the winter: a month or two of sunny weather followed by six weeks of rain, then sunshine again and before you know it, we're well into spring. In the Bay Area of my youth, was there not a lovely mix -- two days of rain followed by four days of sunshine, interrupted by a day of rain, then five more days of sun, then maybe a week of rain and onward thusly? Ah, who the hell knows. In recent years the weather is an all-or-nothing proposition. And the forecast for the next week or so: bleak.
Training Log: Jan 05 05
No pool. Cold and wet in the morning so no ride (wimp). No time to run in the evening (Niko). So I took a 3-mile walk at lunch. That's fine. Sometimes in triathlon, less is more, as someone once said. (Who?)
PR in Action
Kudos to the PR Department at Wal-mart, which is probably called the "Corporate Communications Department," as such operations are at most larger companies because PR folks can't help but PR even their own identity.

Wal-mart had a bad November, with sales rising only 0.7 percent over the previous year, and its gain in December of 3 percent was solidly below the gain it posted last year, 4.3 percent. Yet there's the New York Times saying that "Wal-Mart, the country's biggest retailer, managed to come back with style."

Well, the PR people certainly did.

Faced with bad-to-mediocre news, Wal-mart spun a story of a near-miraculous comeback from the depths of retailer hell. The story begins with the Times recounting how a top company executive tracked on his Blackberry the unfolding bad news that hit on the day after Thanksgiving. "'At 7 a.m., I looked at the readings coming in from other states, and my gut feeling was confirmed,' he recalled in an interview yesterday. 'By 8 a.m., we knew we had an issue.'"

That's when fearless Wal-mart executives -- and even hourly employees, the Times notes -- sprung into action. They held meetings and developed ad campaigns and stuff, but mostly what they did was cut prices on key items. Sometimes it worked -- the rise in fleece sales was said to be "very significant" (note the use of imprecise but suggestively positive language). Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes we're not really sure. But surely they attacked the problem.

Was all this cost-cutting a little, uhm, dangerous? Wal-mart says, uhm, not really we're pretty sure maybe not we don't think so at this point. Here's how the Times put it:

"Still those markdowns did not cut significantly into profits, executives said. Tom Schoewe, Wal-Mart's chief financial officer, said that earnings should come in within the range projected earlier: between 73 and 75 cents a share for the quarter that ends in January. 'We haven't revised that estimate,' he said."

Again, note the suggestive but imprecise language. "Did not cut significantly into profits"; "should come in within the range projected"; "'we haven't revised that estimate.'"

What becomes clear in reading this story is that the Times desperately likes this tale of Wal-mart, the behemoth, acting nimbly to save the Christmas season. What also becomes clear is that it's not entirely clear that 1) what Wal-mart did was at all unusual (don't companies always track sales and lower prices to move items that are glued to shelves?); or 2) that what Wal-mart did was especially effective.

The Times says that "tomorrow, Wal-mart is expected to announce that December sales achieved a 3 percent gain over sales for December 2003." The Times doesn't say who expects this or where it got its information about these expectations; I'm going out on a limb and guessing Wal-mart. No matter. The Times likes this number because it's bigger than the 2 percent rise number that Wal-mart had put out last week. Success -- for the PR department.

Instead of just dumping a load of disappointing news out to the business world -- the 3 percent rise in December sales -- Wal-mart's PR folks deftly juxtaposed it against the 2 percent figure it "estimated" last week (and which, the cynic in me presumes, was a number Wal-mart was pretty sure it would actually beat), then fed the Times a lot of nice anecdotes and half-baked insider information to show how this victory was achieved. They recognized that how desperately media want to tell dramatic stories, and how bringing reporters inside your company -- giving them information they typically don't have access to -- can be so effective.

Beautifully done.