Target Gets Local With On-the-Field Team of PR Pros

Having Representation in Regional Markets Has Helped Build Media Relationships That Create National News

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It's easy to think of Minneapolis as the center of the world if you're Target . That's why Donna Egan, a senior member of the retailer's communications team, packed her bags in summer 2010 and relocated to Phoenix. It was part of a test to discover what would happen if the retailer put a PR executive in the field to cultivate local-media relationships, work with local officials and generally support the stores and staff located far from Minnesota.

"It's not breaking news that everything is hyper-local now," said Ms. Egan, an alum of agencies including Weber Shandwick and Porter Novelli. "For forever we just had our headquarters-based team. After thinking about it a little bit, we said, "Why don't we experiment with having someone at a senior level doing something on a local level?'"

The decision was made to pilot a field program on the West Coast first—some 1,700 miles from headquarters. For the next 12 months, Ms. Egan and another PR manager working on the pilot were responsible for making the company locally relevant in markets including Arizona, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.

A store opening in Oakland became a news event when Target connected with the mayor's office.

The test was so successful that four seasoned communications pros were recruited to represent Target in Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Toronto in the fall. The execs are all external hires. They spent a chunk of time at headquarters where they were schooled on the Target brand and, more broadly, the retail landscape. They come together for a week every other month in Minneapolis, in addition to frequent travel in their markets. Ms. Egan manages this so-called Field Public Relations Team, all of whom are based in Target offices (not their living rooms).

Suzanne Lyons, VP-director at Ketchum, which does not work with Target , called the program "brilliant," noting that while she has seen other marketers try similar things, it's the type of move that tends to fly under the radar. Most marketers, she said, are more interested in national media relations, despite the fact that consumers have been hungry for more local news. "Having boots on the ground, getting that local media coverage is where you can really have an impact," she said. "You impact consumer perceptions, but ... consumer impressions convert to a successful business."

Target 's field team has gone to work cultivating relationships with key reporters, opening up a dialogue that hadn't existed before. One of the first things Ms. Egan did during the pilot was sit down with a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. "I was able to pitch stories to her then that resonated," Ms. Egan said. "And the flip side was that she could pick up the phone all the time and have direct access to me."

"We're not being Pollyanna about this, but being in the local markets, understanding what reporters are hearing from their readers or viewers and helping them tailor stories has been huge," she added.

Ms. Egan also promoted PFresh, a relatively new concept dedicated to expanding stores' fresh food and produce offerings, in Orange County, Calif., Phoenix and Albuquerque, N.M. Those markets, she said, wouldn't have normally gotten so much focus. "It was a challenge as a national story, because it wasn't all happening at once," Ms. Egan said. "And why would consumers care if it were not happening in their market?"

Likewise, in March a store opening in Oakland, Calif. -- normally the stuff of press releases -- became a news event when Target connected with the Oakland mayor's office. A press conference resulted, giving Mayor Jean Quan an opportunity to talk about the 300 new jobs and sales-tax revenue the store would provide.

And on Black Friday, the field team spread out in their respective markets, taking pictures, chatting up customers and feeding tweets to the national @Target handle. In Dallas, Andrea McCauley, a manager on the field team, discovered a feel-good story about an engaged couple who'd met in line at Target on Black Friday three years prior. The story of Trevor MacDonald and Jessie Pierfelice was originally pitched to the local NBC affiliate, but ended up garnering coverage across the country, including on the "Today" show.

"It's not all going to be about wins. Sometimes we're unsuccessful with something, and that 's a learning," Ms. Egan said. "We're still learning how to best utilize this group."

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