Dillard’s responding to Heroic Media controversy with boilerplate e-mails denying ‘sponsor’ label

Posted on: March 17th, 2011 by Sofia Resnick 3 Comments

Image by: Matt MahurinFollowing The American Independent’s reporting that a Dillard’s store in Houston is providing clothes for a Heroic Media fashion-show fundraiser, Dillard’s shoppers opposed to Heroic Media’s racially-motivated messages have told TAI they have contacted the corporation demanding it revoke its participation.

Blogger and communications/marketing professional Samuel Smith, who lives in Colorado, recently deconstructed the content of an e-mail received by his friend and colleague Sara Robinson, a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a consulting partner with the Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle, from Dillard’s in response to a letter Robinson sent the company expressing her concerns over the fundraiser. Writing on the issue, Smith called out the corporation for focusing on the word “sponsor” without addressing subject of the relationship with Heroic Media.

This was the e-mail Robinson 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.

Smith writes:

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.

[...]

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.

(emphasis in the original)

At the bottom of his post, commenter Donna Walters attests to receiving the same e-mail as Robinson. TAI has made repeated requests for comment with Dillard’s corporate headquarters and has yet to receive even a boilerplate response.

In corporate documents on their website, Dillard’s provides a stated Social Accountability Policy, which covers the corporation’s position on the standards of its vendors, factories, suppliers, employment practices and factory inspections :

Dillard will not knowingly do business with vendors that undermine our standards, damage our reputation, and/or threaten our commercial success. With full consideration for the practice of individual vendors as well as the political and social issues of note or notoriety in a Vendor’s country, Dillard will select only the vendors who share our values and will endeavor to build our business with such vendors. Dillard reserves the right to break contractual relations, and will not initiate relations with vendors who violate basic human rights.

This policy, Dillard’s notes, applies only to ”all vendors (each a ‘Vendor’) that produce private label merchandise for which Dillard’s, Inc. or any of its subsidiaries, divisions, affiliates or agents (‘Dillard’) is to be the importer of record (‘Merchandise’).”

The policy does not address the corporation’s stance on organizations it partners with for store events — organizations like Heroic Media.

In addition to customer demand that Dillard’s should not participate in the event, Change.org and Care2 have started separate petitions calling for Dillard’s to cancel.

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