Dillin Keynote Address

Chris AhearnBy Roger Pynn, APR, CPRC

Likening the planning of a PR roadmap to families mapping out a vacation, Lowe’s Companies Vice President of Corporate and Employee Communications Chris Ahearn, says “every time you think about where you’re going, there’s a twist in the road.  You think you plan for everything, but you probably don’t plan for the car breaking down by the roadside.”

In a presentation titled “The Road Best Traveled May Be All Over the Map,” the Florida native and University of Florida alumna shared a wide range of insights after reminding us that while “I may live in North Carolina, my heart is always in Florida.”

At the home improvement chain, her corporate communications responsibilities are wide-ranging and include preparing quarterly reports for the company’s board of directors who she says take serious interest in not only the impressions generated by public relations activity but such metrics as trend lines and tone of voice.  “You have to love change to be in our business.”

Ahearn said Lowe’s targets include not just shoppers, but potential employees, as well as investors and “No matter who we are talking to, we want to make sure that we are always talking about our great reputation and building trust in our brand.  It is about both protecting and projecting a good reputation.”

She demonstrated that with great examples:

As for protecting the brand … when the company was falsely accused of cutting advertising on cable network TLC’s short-lived show “All-American Muslim,” Lowe’s was attacked not only in social and traditional media but stores were swarmed with protesters on both sides of a prickly issue totally unrelated to its business.

In fact, Lowe’s had never placed advertising on the show, but their ad buys were a run of mass purchases that TLC could place throughout its inventory.  However, she said, “The Florida Family Assn. took credit for forcing Lowe’s to pull its ads” and the ensuing free-for all involved passionate Muslims, anti-Muslims and free speech advocates.

“Before this time we probably didn’t realize how fast an issue could catch fire,” said Ahearn, “but we learned the importance of getting the emotion out of the situation so you can attack it logically.

“In today’s transparent world we don’t spin a story … we have to work with the facts to position our companies in the public eye,” she said, “and sometimes when something breaks first on social media it may be better not to respond at all.”

She called that, however, a calculated decision.  In this case, careful response worked.  In a few weeks, the issue had died down and, in fact, Lowe’s reported increased store sales.

Pointing out that projecting a good story is more fun than brand protection in a crisis; Ahearn shared the recent story of a wheel chair-bound veteran who had faced countless delays and too much frustration attempting to secure help from the Veterans Administration to repair his chair.  Showing up at a Staten Island Lowe’s, the chair gasped its last breath and he felt stuck … until three members of the store team helped him to a patio chair, took themselves off the clock and made it like brand new.

Said Ahearn, “we had tons of requests for interviews with those three guys but they wanted no part of  it.”   Nor did the company compensate the “volunteers,” she said.  “It was just who they are … what they do.”

The story ran on media as diverse as NBC Evening News and Fox News, delivering what she called “stuff you can’t buy.”

A point of pride for Ahearn is Lowe’s commitment to social media.  Perhaps the most creative she pointed out, is the creation of unique videos for the short-form platform Vine.  Branded “Lowe’s Fix in Six,” the fun and quirky do-it-yourself videos … shot in-house on an iPhone … and launched for only $5,000, quickly racked up 15,000,000 earned impressions.

If you were doing an infographic, that would mean nine million views … 54 million seconds … 900,000 minutes … and 15,000 hours engaged with customers.   The Success in Six campaign received Mashable’s Best use of Vine Award at its conference last year.

She concluded by saying that corporate social responsibility is an essential Lowe’s value.  “Simply, it is about acting responsibly.”

She offered this advice to practitioners:

Then, now and always — maintain high standards; share your story; anticipate issues; be true to your word; and, do the right thing.

Chris AhearnABOUT CHRIS AHEARN

Chris Ahearn, VP, corporate and employee communications for Lowe’s Companies, Inc., is responsible for public relations, social media and employee communication, as well as community philanthropic and volunteerism efforts and the Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation. She joined Lowe’s in 2000 and has more than 30 years of experience in communication, including more than 20 years of corporate and crisis communication and eight years as a television news reporter.

Previously, Ahearn served as spokesperson for Food Lion, managing local and national media relations, including an appearance on ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” and a live “Nightline” broadcast featuring the company’s 1997 federal court victory against Capital Cities/ABC.

Ahearn has worked as a television news reporter and anchor at KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City and WLUK-TV in Green Bay, Wis. She earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting from the University of Florida and an MBA from Oklahoma City University.

She was honored with the Charlotte Business Journal’s Women in Business Achievement Award in 1997 and was named an Alumna of Distinction by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in 2013. She is also a member of the Arthur W. Page Society.

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