My favorite scene from “Cool Hand Luke” is when the prison warden, played by the much-traveled character actor Strother Martin, says to Paul Newman, “What we’ve got here is ... failure to communicate.”
This oft-quoted phrase came to mind as some of the nation’s most important retailers recently have grappled with how to explain their actions to the public.
Last month, HFN received a mind-numbing statement from J.C. Penney under the headline “jcpenney Simplifies Business Model to Drive Transformation.” According to the release, Penney’s “new approach to pricing, promotion, merchandising and the customer experience requires a more competitive operational structure.”
The new company is “transitioning from a culture based on management to one based on leadership,” new CEO Ron Johnson said in the press release.
Layoffs were never mentioned. The words “employee” or “associate,” or whatever Penney calls its workers these days, are not included in the statement. Additional reporting revealed that, yes, the company was laying off about a thousand employees, 600 of them at the Plano, Texas, headquarters.
J.C. Penney has the right to lay off as many workers as it feels it needs to do to make money, but why all the corporate gobbledygook? What was the point, and what did it achieve?
The company said back in January that it would cut annual expenses by $900 million by the end of next year. Clearly some massive layoffs are ahead. It seems, however, that having someone spend time writing—and eventually explaining— a press release full of corporate-speak is not a good example of “simplifying its business model” or “driving transformation.”
Best Buy, last month, had some explaining to do as well when its seemingly beloved CEO Brian Dunn abruptly resigned. Best Buy released a statement saying that Dunn stepped down after the retailer launched an internal probe about his “personal conduct.” The Minnesota Star Tribune, Best Buy’s hometown newspaper, said the matter involved a “female subordinate.”
Complicating matters, Best Buy’s news came out amidst headlines that Bobby Petrino, the University of Arkansas head football coach, had been caught in an “inappropriate relationship” with a 25-year-old assistant. Plenty of scandalous details were revealed. Would similar information be forthcoming about the Best Buy situation? How much should Best Buy reveal about its investigation?
Do we really want to know the gory details?
More recently, all eyes are on Walmart to see how it responds to the New York Times report that it covered up bribes in Mexico. So far, the world’s largest retailer has released a couple of statements to the public.
First, Walmart said the case is being thoroughly investigated and that it’s doing all it can to make sure it adheres to the law. A few days later, Walmart released a follow-up statement that it had created a new Global Compliance Officer to oversee its international markets.
It’s too early to declare Walmart guilty or innocent of the allegations. But, so far, the retailer has defended itself with clear statements explaining its actions.
“We will not tolerate noncompliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act anywhere or at any level of the company,” the company said.
Now that’s communication that would satisfy even Strother Martin.
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