Home Blog Uncategorized PR Rock Stars: A conversation with Kelly Groehler

PR Rock Stars: A conversation with Kelly Groehler


If you work in the PR industry in Minneapolis/St. Paul, you’ll be hard-pressed to meet many folks who haven’t heard of Kelly Groehler. A past MN PRSA president (2004), Kelly is one of the dynamic–and more outspoken–leaders in the Minnesota PR community. She’s also an active “community builder.” Kelly gives back to her alma mater (profession advisor to the PRSSA chapter at St. Cloud St. University), is engaged professionally (APR certified; served as a member of the PRSA national advocacy advisory board) and is involved in the Twin Cities community (volunteers for the Citizens League).

By day, she’s also a key member of the corporate public relations team at Best Buy–the largest specialty retailer of consumer electronics in the United States–where she oversees the organization’s reputation management efforts and is credited with developing its corporate responsibility program. Sounds like a rock star to me. Let’s meet the woman behind this sterling reputation.

You’ve been through a lot at Best Buy the last few months with the layoffs and changes. You’ve parted ways with what I’m guessing were good friends and trusted colleagues. And, at times, you’ve shared your feelings pretty publicly on Twitter. Talk a little bit about those experiences and why you chose to share your personal thoughts over the Twitter airwaves.

Thousands of our employees, across our brands and operations worldwide, share their personal stories, their fears, and their hopes – both for our company and their own futures – through Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and other platforms. True, many of the stories in recent months have reflected the difficult times and decisions we’re all going through as the economy continues to churn. The impact on our business, like so many, has been painful, but it’s also very personal, from one person to the next. These platforms help us support one another, consider others around us, and stay connected as we weather these changes in our business.

We also have the benefit of talented employees who develop ways for us to funnel these stories so they can be collectively heard – from the spy.appspot.com application developed by @benhedrington, to the creative uses of simple hashtags to categorize comments of employees leaving (#goodbyeBBY) and those staying (#helloBBY), to the Connect! page at www.bestbuyinc.com, which aggregates our employees’ voices and content from numerous sources. And these are just a couple of examples.

And while several of our senior executives are also active (such as @bjdsr, @BestBuyCMO, @rstephens), I think the average person reading our employees’ stories gets a pretty honest look inside our company culture, versus trying to figure us out via some “official company Twitter handle.” (We do have @bestbuy and @geeksquad handles currently being programmed so tweets from numerous employee handles feed it.)

My own activity on Twitter has a few different origins. One is cultural: I’m grateful that Best Buy is a company that encourages employees to “bring your whole self to work.” We know our competitive advantage comes from the perspectives of our people, whether they’re in a corporate support function, or directly engaging with our customers through our channels. Sharing my own experiences deliberately through this medium provides my honest look inside Best Buy. Plus, it gives others a pretty good idea of how I’m wired, and I’m not going to paint a picture of myself that isn’t authentic.

Another is core to the profession: This is a newer medium quickly accelerating along the adoption curve, and part of my responsibility to Best Buy is to understand how it works, participate, build relationships through it, and see how it drives perception and action – just as I’ve done over the years with other channels. Yes, it’s also being explored for commercial use, and why not? Look at e-mail, phone, postage-paid mail, Web sites, newspapers, magazines, television – point to a medium over the course of history that hasn’t been maximized commercially while also providing authentic content, news or information.

Bottom line, our stakeholders participate in here, and their perceptions of Best Buy are touched by the numerous company voices – not just mine – they experience. Our ability to build trust and connect with our stakeholders will require a continued adoption of these emerging channels.

Best Buy took an interesting approach in communicating with staff about the financial challenges and layoffs in December. Essentially, Best Buy gave staff a choice—take a buyout package or stay and take your chances. When this news was shared publicly, you did an interesting thing: I noticed you shaping the conversation on Twitter. Making sure the facts were correct. Answering questions. And providing your take on the situation. How do you feel that impacted the public perception of Best Buy’s unique strategy? And how did your work on Twitter intersect with your media relations strategy during that announcement?

We know that everything internal is external, and vice versa, so we have a tendency to approach communications strategies from the vantage points of numerous stakeholder groups and the use of multiple employee- and public-facing channels. This was no different a case. The sensitive nature of the financial challenges, and the subsequent impact on employees, meant the message must land first with our own people. Our external outreach strategy was laser focused and wholly proactive, targeting the key influential reporters covering our business. 

That said, we knew the story would come back to us once the employees heard it. (We had a call from the Star Tribune less than 20 minutes after an employee e-mail message was distributed, listing the number of employees taking the voluntary package.) Twitter and other platforms are both internal and external media, so they were key to the effort, as part of the broader communications strategy. That said, I don’t think any of our public relations team members’ voices on Twitter (me, @susanbusch, @hawkstang, @justinbarber, @erinbix) for a major event in our business would be as effective if we weren’t tweeting on a regular basis.

How this particular strategy has affected public perception of Best Buy remains to be seen. There generally aren’t any quick-win measures for reputation. Our stock price has been somewhat steady – relatively speaking – since we announced the voluntary option. But we’ll also look at reputation measures, both proprietary and syndicated, that take the pulse of the perceptions both the public and our employees across the U.S. have of Best Buy, and their willingness to act (shop, work for, invest in, support locally). And we need to quickly follow up this next year with stories of how Best Buy is going to weather this tough period and stay competitive in this new era. Overall, I am pretty confident that we’ll look back at this period in our business and feel good about the way we chose to handle it.

You work in corporate PR-reputation management at Best Buy. However, you spend a decent amount of your day online on Twitter. Talk a little about the unique way you use Twitter to help further and protect Best Buy’s digital reputation online.

I guess I don’t see it as a “however” proposition. Funny, how we were saying the same thing 10 years ago about e-mail: “You’re spending too much time on it! Get back to work!”

I certainly do not see a distinction between an online, or digital, reputation and an overall company reputation. I have a pretty strong point of view that many are overreacting to social media, and compensating for it by trying to “sell” it as something it’s really not. Case in point: online reputation management. That, to me, is an attempt to spin something that can’t be controlled (reputation) and packaging it into something that can be (SEO, click-throughs, followers, etc.). It’s like pointing to the number of news releases issued in a year as a measure of impact. I’m not buying it.

I was tweeting earlier today with @creichow about our tendencies for flavors of the month. As he correctly pointed out, e-mail today is ubiquitous. But 15 years ago, we agonized over how it would deplete productivity and diminish the value of face-to-face conversations, while others extolled it as the game-changer for organizational excellence. Then, 10 years ago, we were doing the same with e-commerce. Today, what do we do? We agonize over social media, how it depletes productivity and diminishes the value of face-to-face conversations, while others extol its game-changing qualities for organizational excellence.

Again, this is a newer medium, and we need to understand how it works and participate. But the measures for what it can do are better directed at the outcomes, not the outputs. And, soon, this too will evolve, and I’m sure we’ll get all frazzled over the next big thing.

We’ve had a few conversations in the last couple months about the value of APR. I know you hold this certification (as do I) but we both agree there’s work to be done to position the APR designation better in the eyes of the business community. In your mind, how can we best tackle this challenge?

Right now, it’s entirely upon me, the carrier of the designation, to position and articulate its value for my business peers, and even for many of my public relations peers. But I don’t believe better branding for APR is enough. The challenge rests with the undergraduate programs, both in the liberal arts colleges and in the business schools.

The very problem we have with recognition of the accreditation designation – and with the public relations profession, for that matter – stems from the first introduction a student has to the role of public relations in business. If we keep the PR students in one building, and the business students in another building across campus, chances are very good they’ll learn two entirely different sets of ideas, and leave with two different pictures of what success looks like. Last I checked, the ones usually leading in the board rooms aren’t the PR graduates.

I don’t at all discount the liberal arts underpinnings of the profession; I value mine, and I believe they do fill a critical gap missed by business management programs. Additionally, PRSA does play a key role in undergraduate education, and I’m constantly impressed by students involved in the PRSSA chapters. But I don’t think that’s enough to overcome the “PR as marketing tactic” perception held in the business programs.

Until we force more connection between business management principles and communications principles, then we’ll continue to have the same problems with true recognition of public relations as a business management function. (Case in point: Who told Lehman Bros. it was a good idea to stand up at Davos in 2008 and announce that it was shock-proof to any economic hardship?)

Historically, Best Buy has been on the cutting-edge when it comes to new media and technologies—as evidenced by the development of Blue Shirt Nation just a few years back. How is Best Buy leveraging social media tools today to engage its customers and key stakeholders—especially during times like this when customers may not be willing to spend as much discretionary income as they would have in the past?

We sell consumer electronics – the stuff that makes all of this social interaction possible. Broadly, we know that our perspective on technology, and its constantly-changing state, is key to our differentiation against cost-based competitors like Walmart and Amazon. And that’s what customer centricity is about: not a focus on the technology itself, but rather helping consumers use technology in ways that enrich their lives.

So while I don’t think I or any of my colleagues would say that we’ve cracked the code, there is a shared point of view that social forums help us empower people to collaborate, listen, solve problems, and find new opportunities to help consumers discover what technology can do for them. We have a number of ideas, tests, and initiatives in play to engage our people, consumers, and others through these new channels. We know that some will work, others won’t, and everything will constantly evolve. That said, we’re not afraid to take risks, try things, and even fail, so long as we learn something from the experience that will further our business strategy and growth goals.

You’re a former MN PRSA president and long-time advocate for the organization. Talk a little about your involvement with PRSA and how it has helped shape who you are today as a PR practitioner.

I’ve been a card-carrying PRSA member since college, and I can’t give enough credit to the programs, experiences, networks, mentors, and leadership development I gained through active participation in PRSA at local and national levels. My viewpoints around reputation management, for instance, stem from those same theoretical and practical experiences. The accreditation process is vigorous, and the code of ethical conduct is a strong baseline for good practice. I absolutely think the organization is well-poised to help those entering this profession to view their work as a business management function, something that helps an organization steer its actions and words and advoca
te for the public perception.

I also think PRSA is at an interesting crossroads for its continued relevancy, particularly for those who have an increasing number of years’ experience. Not only is the accreditation program in need of coalition-building within business, we’re seeing business itself continuing to move toward adoption of corporate social responsibility (CSR) principles – that is, social and environmental accountability, as well as financial performance. These are times when the need for clear messages, stakeholder engagement, and advocacy in the court of public opinion has never been greater. Sadly, an entire cottage industry has emerged for CSR, and we don’t see the levels of engagement of public relations principles or practitioners where they need to be. This is more than an agency carving out a CSR practice area, or creating new award entry categories; this is a fundamental opportunity for the public relations profession to shine and add tremendous value to businesses worldwide.

I’m a believer in Bill Murray, the PRSA president, and his ability to navigate the society through this next wave in business, and come out well-positioned on the other side. So I won’t be giving back the membership card anytime soon.



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