LAS VEGAS, NV - The National Automatic Merchandising Association presented the voluntary ethical standards program developed by its Ethics Working Group at a presentation during the association's Spring Expo here.
The program, announced at last year's NAMA National Expo, is designed to build the vending industry's public image (see V/T, November 2000). Jacquelyn Clark, NAMA's director of public relations, introduced past-chairman J.E. (Eddie) Hicks, Prestige Services (Clifton Park, NY), who chaired the Ethics Working Group.
"Why do we need business ethical standards? Because negative publicity scars this industry," Hicks noted. A voluntary ethical standard to which operators agree to conform is good for business at the individual company level, the industry veteran emphasized. "It's valuable to tell people what we stand for," he said. "The standards statement, which is in place now, can be put on a single sheet of paper. You can print it on your letterhead."
The value of professional standards is recognized by accountants, attorneys and physicians, Hicks said, and each of these groups has a formal code of conduct for its members. The vending industry should, too.
Hicks reported that final determination on the proposed ethical standard is a board-level issue; the Working Group was formed on an ad hoc basis to draft a proposal, submit it to the board, and disband. The board now has approved the draft, which is being disseminated to NAMA members for their comments and action.
The proposed standard's preamble states that it is the obligation of the vending industry to serve the public, its customers and its clients; that the industry is committed to high standards of honesty and integrity; and that its members' conduct "shall reflect positively on the industry."
To reflect this commitment, the operator agrees to eight points, Hicks explained. "First, to demonstrate integrity; we'll be honest, and not break the law," he said. "Second, that we'll use sound accounting practices and comply fully with the terms of the contracts we sign."
The third point is commitment to offering only high-quality merchandise, and to high standards of sanitation and safe handling of products. The fourth embodies the well-known "Clean, Filled and Working" ideal: that machines will be convenient to use, work reliably, and be stocked with fresh product.
The fifth point is a commitment to respect, and to deal fairly with, employees, customers and clients, suppliers and competitors, the NAMA past chairman continued. And the sixth is a pledge to maintain a safe environment by keeping vehicles in good working order, promoting safe driving and other practices, and to strive for the safest possible workplace. Hicks noted that the operator's insurance rates are based on average vending industry performance, so widespread agreement to emphasize safety will be beneficial to everyone.
The seventh point is a commitment to pursue excellence by developing the potential of employees and managers, and by applying appropriate technology to an organiztion's service mission as that technology becomes available.
The eighth point pledges the signatory to be actively involved in the community, trade associations and the governmental process, Hicks concluded.
These eight points, approved at the National Expo last fall, are being incorporated into NAMA training materials. An annual review will gauge the program's progress.
"Promote these standards," Hicks urged. "Include this statement in your proposals." A formal code under which operators pledge to do what good operators always have done is not only important for building a more professional and positive industry image, but also can be a valuable competitive tool.
Public relations director Clark led the second half of the presentation, detailing proven techniques for effective image improvement. The vending industry tends not to receive the recognition that should be accorded a service business of its size, scope and importance because operators in general have not striven to communicate with the public.
"To enhance your image, you must find opportunities to talk to the press," Clark emphasized. "Develop 'message points,' and always use them during interviews."
Opportunities for attracting favorable media attention occur all the time, Clark said. "What's interesting about your business? Determine that first," she urged. "You have to find interesting things in order to get your message points across."
The message points are simple summations of the most important information the operator wants to communicate to the public, Clark explained. The key to successful public relations is always to "stay on message," making sure that the points are communicated during every contact with the media.
Many things an operating company does are potentially newsworthy, the PR expert explained. "Are you introducing an unusual new product? Have you hired a new employee, or honored an existing one? Have you gotten a contract? Have you conducted a survey? Any of these events can be interesting," she instanced.
Opportunities for communicating with the media include actions as simple as writing a letter to the editor. "You can comment on a news story or a trend, perhaps changes in attitude toward nutrition," Clark suggested. "You can comment on legislation." In doing any of these things, the key is to embody the message points in the commentary.
Local broadcast media also offer many opportunities for communicating with the public, the NAMA public relations director continued. Radio news or talk shows have a continuing desire for interesting interviews relevant to their audiences, and operators can provide such interviews. "You can explain why your services, or a product or products you sell, are important," she instanced. "You can discuss a trend, perhaps consumers' interest in convenience."
Operators also can organize events, such as media tours of their facilities or customer contests and promotions, Clark pointed out. "Follow the news; look for connections," she urged. "Look for opportunities."
Once the operator has attracted the media's attention, the message point or points can be brought into play. Controlling an interview is important to maintain its focus and refusing to be distracted. "What you want to do is edit your remarks in advance," Clark said.
For example, an operator might feel that the general public does not appreciate the freshness of vended products, nor the improved reliability of modern vending equipment. "The message points here might be, 'Our vending machines deliver the freshest product on the market,' and 'our cutting-edge technology insures flawless product delivery? Or, 'the technology in place today insures the freshest product, delivered reliably.'"
With this sort of summary in mind, the objective is to present it whenever an opportunity arises. Clark noted that professional communicators (experienced politicians, for example) use two simple methods to create those opportunities. These methods are "blocking" and "bridging."
"Blocking' means not being distracted into providing commentary extraneous to the message point," the speaker explained. "Bridging" means establishing a transition between the question actually asked and the answer the operator wants to give. Examples are, "I really can't discuss that in detail, but what I can tell you is that..." and, "I think what you're really asking is..." A general purpose segue to either technique is, "I'm glad you asked that!"
This is not a cynical exercise, Clark pointed out; it simply is a way to avoid drifting off into irrelevance. Journalists often ask questions like "Do you think New Yorkers eat more cookies than anyone else?" They also can present impossible choices, such as "Do you think vending patrons worry more about stale products or unreliable machines?" In either case, no one will learn anything of value if the operator doesn't shift the discourse toward relevance by saying, "I can't discuss New Yorkers' cookie consumption in detail; but I can tell you that the technology we use insures flawless delivery of the freshest cookies available," or "I think what you're really asking is about customer satisfaction; and our machines insure flawless delivery of the freshest product on the market."
Keeping message points in mind is essential when dealing with controversies or disasters, Clark emphasized. Operators should know how to respond if they're asked, "How extensive is the problem of excessive junk food consumption?" or are asked for a comment about a competitor. The safe course is to deliver a positive message.