Inside Belk’s communications and community relations efforts

December 1, 2011

Outreach and community relations are year-round undertakings for the Charlotte, N.C.-based Belk, Inc.  The country’s largest privately owned department store has many sales initiatives around the holidays and charitable work that extends through this time of year as well.

“Starting last year, we pledged to give away 2.5 percent of our pre-tax income to our community,” says Jessica Graham, APR, vice president, communications and community relations at Belk. “This year, that will equate to about $5 million throughout our 16-state footprint.  And that will continue during the holidays.”

The department store, which William Henry Belk founded in Monroe, N.C., in 1888, currently boasts 303 locations. Last October, Belk changed its logo for the first time since 1967 and underwent a rebranding campaign that focuses on an updated corporate identity that projects the company’s rich history under the tagline, “Modern. Southern. Style.”

Here, Graham speaks about Belk’s upcoming 125th anniversary, communications tactics,  fashion and corporate rebranding.

How did you get your start in public relations?

I’ve been in Charlotte for 31 years. I was born in Minneapolis, but we moved every two years when I was growing up. I consider Charlotte home.

My first job out of college was as an administrative assistant with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Education Foundation, which was a nonprofit organization. It was a local education foundation dedicated to investing in systemic education reform. I handled press releases, media relations for the group, events wrote the annual report and did grant writing. 

That grew and I became more focused on the events and [our] programs. We had one of the first 58 AmeriCorps grants in the country. So I did all of the media around that effort — the writing and hiring, the grant management, project management.

How did you began working for Belk?

I was working for Central Piedmont Community College and got a phone call from a headhunter. I’m not sure who gave him my name, but I had my mouth opened to say,  “I’m really not interested,” because I was very happy where I was. But, the more he described the position, [I realized that] it was exactly what I wanted to do. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

Were you always interested in public relations and communications?

When I look back — even in college — I was on marketing committees for different things and did fliers. I’ve always been interested in that side of it. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I took classes offered in public relations, but at the time, they didn’t have a PR track. I majored in journalism and my track was advertising. I never did work in advertising.

And there you have it! [Laughs.] Ever since I graduated, I’ve always done some aspect of public relations.

What is your job like on a day-to-day basis?

I have a staff of six.  We do all of the media relations for the company, the corporate contributions and the events — so a lot of corporate events, but we don’t do store events.

My job is a little bit of everything. We get media calls and media inquiries almost every day.  We handle contributions requests every day.  We have a lot of internal communications initiatives that we’re working on now, so that takes up a big chunk of time [and] I do speech writing. Every day is different. That’s one of the things I love about it.

What challenges do you face in your job as a communicator?

First and foremost, it’s resources. We have a 24/7 cycle now, [so] just making sure that we are monitoring everything is the biggest challenge. Even though we don’t do social media in our department, we want to keep an eye on it because an issue could come out of that realm and we need to be on top of it.

Last October, Belk changed its logo for the first time since 1967. Talk about the rebranding campaign.

It was owned by our marketing department, but from the PR side, my group played a huge role. They took the Belk [family] on a media tour in New York and in several major markets, which garnered a good bit of success. We got a lot of great press coverage on the rebranding.

By all accounts, it’s been successful. Customers have embraced the new brand. Even our assortments are more modern than they were. And we’re seeing real impact with that effort through our sales.

We are continuing the effort, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing so much in terms of internal communications, because we’re focused on working with our associates to live the brand. Not only did we change our logo, but we also identified value statements for the company [and] a new mission statement.

We’re spending a lot of time working with our associates to make sure they understand [and] are recognized for living those value statements.

We consider two things a continuation of that effort. One is that we are the title sponsor of the Belk Bowl [for football] this year for the first time, which is the ACC Big East Championship.  That will be broadcast nationally on ESPN in prime time this year, so that will be a big opportunity for the brand. And next year, we will kick off our 125th Anniversary. Our group is heavily involved in that as well.

William Henry Belk started the company in 1888. How do you protect such a storied franchise, but still keep it modern and updated?

One of our value statements is to celebrate our rich heritage.  It’s an important part of this company. If you look at our founding fathers and that first generation of  Belk, what they stood for and how they approached business, you can see that a lot of the values we intrinsically hold true today started back then.

And [another] one of those is innovation, which works out beautifully for our new emphasis on “modern.”  That original generation of Belks was very innovative for the times. So the spirit of innovation [and] their dedication to customers and communities — those fundamental values are a part of the DNA here. It’s a great mix, and it definitely works.

How has Belk been using social media and how successful have those efforts been to build and to reach a community?

It’s interesting: Social media at Belk is housed in the marketing department. So my group does not oversee those efforts. We have a Facebook page, a Twitter account — and our fashion director tweets tips @BelkFashionBuzz.

How can we best reach today’s consumers and foster a community with so much clutter in the marketplace?

At Belk, that’s not only important when you’re talking about customers, but it’s also important when you’re talking about your associates.  They’re hit with everything just like the customers are, and it’s important to stand out even among the people that work at your company. It’s definitely a challenge.

One of the ways is understanding who your audience is and how they want to communicate with you.  Around the rebranding, we did a lot of customer research about what our customer is looking for — what she expects from us — and we’ve used that and addressed what we’ve heard through that research.

We’re doing the same thing with our associates. I’m getting ready to launch a survey with them that asks them how they want to be communicated with from the company. Do they text? Do they have unlimited texting plans? Do they want to receive texts from us? How do they like to communicate? It’s important that we do not do things the way they’ve always been done, but look for new ways that they’re open to and interested in using.

How should public relations fit into an organization’s larger strategy?

It’s absolutely critical. First of all, you have to foster a fundamental understanding of what it is. [For] a lot of organizations who don’t have a history of having that strong PR component, that can be a challenge. It’s a vital part of any organization’s long-term and short-term strategies.  You want to have your finger on the pulse of what your associates are thinking, doing and feeling, and you want to have your finger on the pulse of the same information for your customers and the audiences that you reach.  This should come through public relations.

For the way you communicate your HR benefits to associates, it’s important to have your PR folks and that expertise on board.  The way that you interact with the media is critically important.  There was a time when some organizations didn’t feel the need for strong PR support because they didn’t speak to the media in a lot of cases. In today’s world, that’s just not realistic.  Your customers are going to be talking about you regardless, and you need to be part of that conversation so you can help drive it.

What trends do you see on the horizon for public relations and communications?

We’re going to increasingly head down this digital road.  Things are going to become [more] integrated. 
As PR professionals, we need to use and understand those tools, what’s next, and how we can integrate messages and efforts — because if we don’t, we’re not going to be able to keep up.  We need to recognize how integrated our customers and our associates are.

What is the best part of your job?

I love my job. I would honestly say, “the people.”  The people and the industry — fashion is fun. Being “Modern. Southern. Style.” is fun.  The people here are very engaged and loyal to Belk; they’re excited about this new brand. I have a great team — it’s a great group of people and that makes it a lot easier .

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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