Earlier today I offered some comments on the trending controversy surrounding Dillard’s and its involvement in an upcoming Houston event staged by anti-abortion advocate Heroic Media. That article noted some parallels with last year’s dust-up involving Target and Tom Emmer, a social reactionary running for Minnesota governor. My friend and colleague, Sara Robinson, turns out to be a devoted Dillard’s customer (as I myself have been in the past). There are lots of reasons to appreciate their style and value and my only complaint up until now was that they closed the store closest to where I live. Sara responded to the Heroic Media story by firing off a letter expressing her concerns to a Dillard’s executive. Here is the response she received:

Hello Sara, Thank you for your thoughts: Dillard’s is not a sponsor of this event. The publicity incorrectly implied that Dillard’s is a sponsor. We are a fashion retailer providing merchandise for a fashion show which we frequently do for a variety of organizations in the communities that we serve. Dillard’s does not take any position with respect to social or political issues. We deeply respect the diverse points of view held by our customers and associates. We sincerely regret that a store manager, without prior authorization, allowed a contrary impression to be created. To the extent that this has offended anyone, we apologize.

There are some problems with the company’s response. But first, let’s understand that this is a meticulously crafted official statement, blessed at the highest levels, and it is likely being used by everyone at Dillard’s who’s authorized to talk about the issue. How do I know? Well, for one thing, I have seen the e-mail that Sara sent and this is most assuredly not a personal reply. Second, I’ve been a marketing and communications pro for a lot of years. I have been in the trenches when PR fires broke out. I have seen vehement arguments waged over comma placement (literally). I know that when something blows up, a statement or talking points document is developed by subject matter experts and corporate communication leadership, and further that said communications go nowhere without formal sign-off by at least one or two people with words like “vice president” or “chief something officer” in their titles. In the case of something as potentially serious as this, it may even have crossed the CEO’s desk. Hard to say. Also, the lawyers look at it. They don’t give a damn about how well it represents the company’s image – all they care about it how effectively it protects the company from litigation. The text of this e-mail smells exactly like that sort of official language in every respect possible. If I seem like I’m nitpicking, I promise you, this is probably nothing compared to what went on in the Dillard’s corporate offices over the past couple of days. And anybody who has done corp comm for a living can tell you that nothing I have said here is remotely controversial or insightful. This is just how the job works. As for the substance of the e-mail, I can’t help noticing how assertively our eyes are called to the word they most object to – “sponsor.” My guess is that Dillard’s has some very explicitly articulated guidelines around that word. If they sponsor an event, that likely means a set of specific items as to what is involved. There would be branding and financial concerns, all tightly defined, all agreed to and signed by all parties to the engagement. I’m just speculating at this point, but I’m betting that “sponsor” is, within Dillard’s official marketing and legal context, a word with a specific meaning – a meaning that does not technically apply to the Heroic Media event.This seems like it would be standard practice in a major organization like Dillard’s. If so, then the spokesperson is telling the truth. It may, however, be one of those truths that leaves room for the reader to arrive, through no fault of the company’s, at an inadvertent conclusion that is at best incomplete. (Read that sentence and tell me I haven’t had experience with Legal.) For instance, companies engage with all kinds of events – large, small, local, national, trade, community, etc. And a large, sophisticated company like Dillard’s isn’t well-advised to reinvent the wheel each and every time. That’s why there are established guidelines that help managers do the best job with the least expenditure of energy. So if “sponsor” has a specific definition, there are perhaps other words that define different levels of engagement. Think about sporting events. You may have noticed that some events are “sponsored by” Company X, while other events are “presented by” Company Y. In some cases you might get a construction like the “Jim’s Bait Shop’s Fishsticks Bowl,” and in others it might go more like “The Fishsticks Bowl, brought to you by Jim’s Bait Shop.” And sometimes it’s just the “Jim’s Bait Shop Bowl.” You may have thought this was several ways of doing the same thing, but in point of fact there are dollar figures attached to each option, and some are more valuable than others. The Jim’s Bait Shop Fishsticks Bowl costs Jim’s a lot more money than The Fishsticks Bowl, presented by Jim’s Bait Shop. I don’t know what terminology, if any, might apply to differing levels of promotional support in the case of Dillard’s and Heroic Media, but it’s a question I’d love to ask. Next sentence: “We are a fashion retailer providing merchandise for a fashion show which we frequently do for a variety of organizations in the communities that we serve.” Irrelevant. Providing merch is functionally the same as providing cash. That they do it for other organizations is only meaningful in the context of the policies governing those donations and the specific details surrounding who they choose to work with and why. Then this: “Dillard’s does not take any position with respect to social or political issues.” Depends on how we define the terms, doesn’t it? They can argue that they have a stated policy to the effect that they take no partisan positions, which is nice. But remember, this is America, where the Supreme Court has decreed that corporations are persons and money is speech. I’m not being even remotely disingenuous when I say that if you support something financially, then you are, by definition, taking a position. Let me exaggerate to illustrate the point. Let’s say I’m wealthy, and on my Web site I have a clear statement that I take no position with respect to political issues. Further, let’s say that I never, ever, offer a political opinion in public. But, I donate the maximum amount allowable by law to every candidate running on the Republicrat ticket in my state. I donate zero money to members of the Democrican Party. And I dump massive amounts into non-profits that assiduously toe the line on every major policy position supported by the Republicrats. On what planet can it realistically be said that I take no position? So if Dillard’s donates merchandise to a Heroic Media event, then they are in fact supporting the organization. To pretend otherwise is to engage in semantic tap-dancing that insults the intelligence and integrity of your audience. If you also provide similar support for pro-choice groups, then you should say that and you should do so unambiguously. Next: “We sincerely regret that a store manager, without prior authorization, allowed a contrary impression to be created.” Hmmm. Well, this is unconvincing. The American Independent story linked above reports that Dillard’s was involved in this same event last year. And “allowed a contrary impression to be created” is about as weasel-infested a passive voice swamp as it is possible for seven words of corporate language to conjure. But, giving the spokesperson the benefit of the doubt, it’s clear that one of the following is true:

  1. Dillard’s failed at the policy level.
  2. Dillard’s failed in its management training.
  3. The store manager badly misinterpreted corporate policy. Two years in a row. And there was no corporate corrective after the initial screw-up.
  4. The store manager has gone rogue.

In 1, no excuse. If 2, no excuse. Management training programs for a company like Dillard’s are incredibly rigorous. If 3, I guess we could perhaps credit that mistakes happen. But two years in a row? No excuse. (Unless this is a different store manager from last year, at which point we have even more evidence suggesting that the fault lies at the corporate level.) If 4, why haven’t I read about his/her firing? No business can tolerate an employee playing fast and loose with its brand reputation. Period. But I can’t take my eyes off that last sentence: “To the extent that this has offended anyone, we apologize.” Not we’re sorry we screwed up. Not we won’t do it again. Not we don’t support anti-abortion groups that have been accused of racist activity. None of that. Instead: we’re sorry you were offended, which is the iconic expression of faux-apology in this, the most spin-centric age of public communication in history. There is no acknowledgment of wrong-doing in this e-mail, and if thoughtful readers were to interpret this as meaning that Dillard’s doesn’t think it has done anything wrong, then it would hard to fault them. In light of all this, we’re probably justified noting that they did it before, they’re doing it again, they have offered nothing remotely like an honest mea culpa. As a result, there’s no reason to sympathize with the conclusion that the company’s statement hopes you’ll draw.

An Official Professional View

In a world where audiences don’t think too deeply about what corporations are actually saying underneath the artfully-spun language, this is masterful work. Except that the company has, in fact, offended a lot of people who do pay closer attention, who recognize misdirection and care more about the act than the silver tongue selling it. This, dear Dillard’s executive, is going to cost you money. Perhaps not a huge amount, but you have a fiduciary responsibility to care about activity that drives customers away. If you conclude that it’s worth it, that the anti-abortion market will cover your losses, or that the furor will die down with no lingering effect, and your board will condone the move, more power to you. You may be right. Regardless, customers can vote with their wallets and shareholders can sell if they don’t like the results they’re seeing. Or they can replace you and the board. Whatever. The market will decide, right? But this doesn’t have to be an either/or world. Companies that pay lip service to “taking no position” can behave in ways that actually bring their communities together, that are pro-people and pro-business, and they can do so without alienating huge segments of the market. I was dead serious when I composed those seven principles for corporate giving and I’d love to see Dillard’s living by them. And as crazy as it might sound, I’d love it if you hired me tomorrow to help you work on improving your corporate social responsibility efforts. Dillard’s has always been a brand that, for me, signified quality and value, and I’d love it if I could go back in a store and feel good about your commitment to the community, as well. I’m not holding my breath, of course. Meanwhile, the spokesperson’s e-mail is brief and tonally it wants to read like a statement of objective fact that will quickly make the “misunderstanding” go away. Maybe it will, or maybe this is just going to snowball. Or maybe it will hit a plateau and then kind of linger, waiting to erupt again. If I’m your PR counsel, though, my advice is to take it seriously. Very seriously. Act quickly and decisively to get your marketing activities in line with a productive community engagement policy. No subterfuge, no misdirection, and if you have screwed up, you need to admit and fix it. Right now. Best of luck.

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About the Author

Sam Smith

Samuel Smith lives a double life. Okay, triple life. By day he makes a living as a marketing consultant specializing in high-level strategy, branding, corporate communication and merging media and practices. In his "spare time" he's the executive editor of Scholars & Rogues, where he writes about everything from politics to music to sports to literature. Finally, he's an author of poetry and fiction whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like storySouth, Poet & Critic, New Virginia Review, Cream City Review, High Plains Literary Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Pemmican and Uncanny Valley. He holds a BA at Wake Forest and MA from Iowa State, and somehow endured the torturous process of earning a PhD in Communication from the University of Colorado.

2 Responses to Analysis: Dillard’s and an unsatisfying response on the Heroic Media controversy

  1. English Teacher says:

    Not disagreeing with your content in any way, but I want to ask you not to use the term “passive voice”. As a language teacher, I have a peeve about people castigating the passive voice when they don’t really know what it is and can’t identify it when they see it. The sentence you identify as “a passive voice swamp” is not actually in the passive voice, it’s in the active voice:
    “We sincerely regret that a store manager, without prior authorization, allowed a contrary impression to be created.”
    A passive voice version of the same sentence would be “That a contrary impression was allowed to be created by a store manager without prior authorization is sincerely regretted by us.”

    If you want to call it a disgustingly mealy-mouthed non-apology, or an outright lie, by all means go ahead. It appears to be both. But “We sincerely regret” and “a store manager…allowed” are decidedly active voice.

  2. Sam Smith says:

    Upon further review, you’re right – not passive voice. Pure weasel and misdirection, but not passive.

    As for that pet peeve, the issue isn’t “don’t know what it means,” but instead was more like “got in a hurry and got a tad careless.” The process of earning BA, MA and PhD, all with a hefty dose of English and writing involved, taught me to know better.

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