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So Michael Moore Is at Your Store...

By Pat Pape

No matter the size of your business —two stores or 202 —at some point you will receive a media inquiry. Maybe your city newspaper is interested in a donation you’ve made to a local charity. Perhaps a television reporter wants comments about gasoline prices. Whatever the topic, are you prepared to represent your operation in the best light?

Practice Being Proactive
By preparing yourself to handle media inquiries, you won’t be caught off guard when a reporter calls. One way to be ready is by "engaging [the media] before you need to engage," advised Jeff Lenard, NACS vice president of communications. "Let them know what you stand for and what you believe in. If you’re not shaping the story, someone else will."

For example, Lenard points to the NACS Fuels Report that is distributed to media outlets and petroleum reporters on February 2. "The first week of February is historically the year’s low point for gasoline prices," he explained. "Refiners draw down supplies and gear up for the annual driving season, which starts in May."

When the driving season takes off, typically so do prices at the pump. By distributing the report months in advance, NACS educates the media on the petroleum market and reminds them that retailers are not the source of rising fuel costs. "Our messages have been consistent over the years," he said. "Retailers don’t make much per gallon. Gas prices follow crude oil prices."

Lenard believes that convenience store operators can be proactive by taking a newsworthy event, such as a huge lottery jackpot, and inviting the local media into the busiest store. Have a company spokesperson offer a comment that won’t be along the lines of: "This place is a zoo!" Instead, offer a better response: "It’s exciting to think that some lucky customer who comes into our store today could fulfill all their dreams."

Finding a PR Pro
It’s a good idea to establish a relationship with public relations professionals before you actually need help. Large retailers such as 7-Eleven, Wawa and Sheetz have PR professionals on staff, but smaller operators are better off relying on an agency or a freelance professional.

"The number one thing that any PR agency will do is help you maintain control and get your messages out," said Lenard, who advises operators to establish specific, measurable, realistic public relations goals before the first meeting with a potential agency.

"Say 'These are the concrete results we want.’ That can be broad, such as 'We want to talk about growth into a new market’," he said. "The agency will address how they can help you amplify these goals."

Before selecting a PR partner, determine how you will be billed. You can pay your PR professional a monthly retainer or you can purchase services on a by-project basis. If you ?nd an agency or freelancer that appeals to you, "Do one project together," said Lenard. "It’s always a good idea to see if you want to form a deeper relationship."

If you need help but don’t have the funds for a full-blown agency, turn to your local college or university. "Look for a local college where students are learning community relations," he said, because many instructors will assign their PR students projects for local business and non-pro?t groups as part of their ?nal grade.

There is a bonus to using college-age talent, Lenard added. "They understand what their peers think and they under stand new media. They’ll be doing your marketing for you."

In Front Of The Camera
At the NACS Show, Lenard heads up a workshop that guides retailers on how to communicate with the media and tell their story. This year the workshop, "Spreading Your Word Your Way," will be offered on October 1 at the NACS Show in Chicago from 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm.

During the workshop, retailers will participate in media training that teaches them how to sum up their company’s message into 20-second sound bites, while projecting non-verbal signals that suggest conviction and honesty.

"We ask questions and record the responses" on camera, he explained. "With TV you hear the words but you also see how you look and how you sound, whether you’re ?dgeting or acting defensively."

Crisis Communications
What if the worst thing happens —a crisis or violent crime —and you are not prepared?

"NACS can help you with media relations, especially in times of crisis," said Lenard. "We can put the situation in perspective and talk about the broader picture. We have that expertise, and we’re here to serve the industry in times of need."

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer.