Home Depot, the retail giant known by its competitors as "The Orange Crush," turned beet red this week, when the Los Angeles media got its hands on a confidential strategy memo from its PR firm.
Public relations firms don't always like publicity -- especially when the bright lights are pointed at them. This week in the Los Angeles, California neighborhood of Sunland-Tujunga, Home Depot and its PR firm found themselves in a very embarrassing situation. Some leaked strategy memos between the retail giant and its PR firm had neighbors furious, and the PR firm just as angry.
A memo from Rick Taylor of Dakota Communications dated July 24th, spells out in vivid detail what Home Depot should do to convince the city council to approve its big box store. Such key strategy memos rarely see the light of day, and Taylor was reportedly furious that his memo to Home Depot was leaked to the press. Dakota Communications said it would file a report with the police, "which our firm will pursue swiftly and with vengeance." In the memo, Taylor outlines a plan for dealing with the City Council hearing tomorrow night. "Our goal is to galvanize a critical mass of supporters," the memo says, "to attend the hearing to demonstrate visible and vocal community support for the Home Depot." "We will identifiy five local residents and business owners to provide testimony at the City Council meeting...We will prepare talking points for these individuals, focusing on how a new Home Depot store will positively benefit the local community and economy," the memo says.
Dakota names specific commissioners it will focus on, in an attempt "to contact the Mayor to hopefully engage him on this issue on our behalf." The PR firm also promised to recruit 150 local area residents to attend tomorrow's hearing, provide them with transportation, and "food during meal times." Dakota Communications said it would bus supporters in by 9p.m. "to ensure that they are prominently seated in Council Chambers." "Finally, we will order orange t-shirts with a positive message about The Home Depot for all supporters to wear and so Council members can easily identify." The PR firm also promised "free media support" in the form of an op-ed for the Los Angeles newspapers, "a wonderfully sincere and compelling story about The Home Depot's commitment to Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 riots and one that has yet to be told." The price tag for all this activity? $24,100, including $17,000 to hire "recruitment/organizers."
Opponents of Home Depot were appalled by the memo's contents. "We don't have near the amount of money Home Depot has and we wouldn't use our money that way anyway," Joe Barrett, of the No Home Depot In Sunland-Tujunga Committee, told the Daily News. "Our supporters come on their own free will, are not compensated, and pay their own way to attend these hearings, including getting off work, and for babysitters." Dakota said its firm does not pay supporters, but added, "There isn't one major project in the city that doesn't do this -- on both sides. This is what people do to get people motivated, excited and turn out."
For its part, Home Depot hedged on whether or not the company had actually bought the Dakota campaign pitch. A Home Depot spokeswoman told the Daily News it was customary for Home Depot to use public-relations firms to "activate supporters." "When a proposal is met with opposition it is necessary to find the other voices," Home Depot explained. "You need to find the supporters. If you spoke to any one of them, they were genuinely for the project. Obviously we're not paying for support. We're paying for outside consultants to help find that support."
It's very unusual for this kind of strategy memo to reach the media. But this is big league, urban hardball. In New Orleans, a Wal-Mart developer admitted to paying local residents to sing the retailer's praises at public hearings. A lot of money changed hands -- something one suspects happens all the time -- but with little hard evidence. One angry resident of Sunland told me, "Home Depot has been trying to open their 10th store within a six mile radius of my small community in an old K-mart building, and for three years Sunland/Tujunga has successfully kept them out. In order to avoid having to provide an Environmental Impact Report -- which any other company would have to perform with the size of the project they are trying to develop -- Home Depot has hired Dakota Communications to hire artificial support and to start a slander campaign against our town accusing us of racism, among other things, to divide the town. Councilperson Wendy Greuel has invoked Charter 245 in an historic move to have the Los Angeles City Council assert jurisdiction and revoke the decision made in favor of Home Depot on July 19th. The Mayor apparently met with them just days before this very important vote."
Home Depot's corporate motto is, "You can do it, we can help." Apparently the company felt the Los Angeles City Council could do it -- they just needed a little corporate help. The residents of Sunland-Tujunga, who have already cost Home Depot several hundred millions of dollars in lost sales, will find out July 31st if their elected officials can tell the difference between the grassroots, and the astro-roots. The orange-colored grass should be easy to spot in the packed Council Chambers.
Al Norman is the author of "Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart" and "The Case Against Wal-Mart." He is the founder of Sprawl-Busters.