One of the perhaps unanticipated consequences of the enthusiasm for corporate downsizing over the past decade or so has been a widespread abandonment of public relations as it was practiced in more confident times. One has a vision of narrowly-focused individuals with sharp pencils saying, "Just how many dollars will the PR department add to the bottom line in the next quarter?" - and, not receiving a detailed answer, swinging the axe.
We bring this up because present challenges make public relations more important in vending than, perhaps, ever before. Alert operators always have known that the general public is not quite sure where vending machines come from or who runs them, and that lack of knowledge can be dangerous.
While the National Automatic Merchandising Association has a long history of effective PR on behalf of the industry, and many local operators have won the esteem of their communities, the fact remains that the majority of vending operations do not have the management depth needed for formal, full-time public relations.
This becomes evident at times like the present, when rising public concern is catalyzed by widespread public misinformation or outright ignorance. For almost as long as we can remember , certainly for the last three decades , the majority of operators have been hunting for "better-for-you" items, especially snacks, that their customers will buy. NAMA chairmen have spoken at annual conventions about the frustrations they've encountered in trying to locate these items, and sometimes, of trying to buy them once located ("sorry, we don't sell to the vending class of trade...").
Over the years, many vendors have reported wryly on their persistent attempts to add items perceived as more nourishing to their snack machine menus. The story almost always is along the lines of, "My location contact told me that they'd really like to see 'healthier' snacks in the vending machine. So I put some in, and I learned that they were telling the truth: they wanted to see those items in there. They didn't want to buy them!"
Given human nature, this is natural enough, and vending surely is not the only food and beverage retailing business that encounters the phenomenon. But it does seem unfair that every reporter assigned to write a story about diet and public health seems to regard the term "vending machine" as convenient shorthand for "widespread availability of poor dietary options."
Just or unjust, however, the perception is there. The good news is that it can work to an operator's advantage. Vendors who launch well-thought-out "wellness" programs and bring them to the attention of the media often get an enthusiastic response. While we may deplore the journalistic tendency to equate "vending machine sells 'healthy' snacks" with "man bites dog," it does make journalists receptive to stories about vending companies making serious efforts to help reverse the less functional dietary trends of the past 10 or 15 years.
We think there are far more operators who are, and have been, doing a good job in this respect than there are vendors who tell their local media about the job they do. In some cases, they feel they don't have the time; in a surprising number of other cases, they simply are disinclined to boast. This has been true for a long time. But, more than ever, if we don't find a way to tell the true story, we'll have no one to blame if lies and half-truths prevail.
NAMA has good materials available to operators wishing to set up a modest but effective public relations program. Simply making friendly contact with the local media often can get the ball rolling. Quite a few operators who have made an honest effort to communicate report finding more interest and goodwill than they'd expected.