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Home Depot controversy fueled by semantics, miscues

WASHINGTON (BP)–An official with a pro-homosexuality group said June 6 the organization issued a news release that incorrectly characterized the nature of a corporate grant from retailer Home Depot as well as the group’s relationship with the company, according to a CNSNews.com report.

The Washington, D.C.,-based Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) announced May 30 that Home Depot was sponsoring the group’s upcoming Father’s Day promotion, in which contributors to PFLAG would receive a $25 gift certificate from the home improvement chain.

In reality, Home Depot had made a $2,500 grant to PFLAG in the form of 100 $25 gift certificates, which the group could use to raise funds. But a string of miscues created confusion among the media and customers, which officials on both sides would not fully account for.

The miscues forced PFLAG to reissue the news release, but not until Home Depot had heard from an unspecified number of customers, many of whom were complaining about the so-called sponsorship.

“That was incorrect and so we had to modify [the news release],” said PFLAG director of communications Amy Kobeta.

“The way PFLAG was using the term ‘sponsor’ was inconsistent with the way that Home Depot would use the word ‘sponsor,’ and we felt that it would be appropriate to change it, so that way it was consistent with both of our intentions,” Kobeta said.

A Home Depot spokeswoman agreed that a misunderstanding about wording helped create a false impression of the company’s relationship with PFLAG. “I think it’s a question of semantics,” said Home Depot public affairs manager Mandy Holton. But semantics and missteps were only part of the dust-up.

Regarding PFLAG’s May 30 statement about Home Depot’s alleged sponsorship, Holton said, “We had asked them not to issue that news release.” Holton also said the initial statement from PFLAG made no mention of the company’s grant.

On June 6, the PFLAG statement was re-released, this time making a reference to the company’s $2,500 grant, but still incorrectly claiming that Home Depot was sponsoring the Father’s Day promotion.

Later that date, PFLAG distributed yet another news release, this time accurately characterizing Home Depot’s relationship with the group and making no mention of a sponsorship.

In all cases, the PFLAG news releases were dated May 30 and none of the subsequent statements noted the correction or advised the media that the original release was incorrect.

When asked if Home Depot had requested PFLAG to re-tool the news release, Holton would not respond and insisted on taking only scripted questions. “I don’t want to be caught in the middle here,” Holton said.

On the issue of whether scripted follow-up questions would be accepted, Holton said, “Probably not, but, you know, we’ll certainly consider that.”

Furthering the controversy was the question of why PFLAG apparently disregarded a request by Home Depot to not release the original statement.

“I produce all of our press releases,” said Kobeta, who would not explain why PFLAG had issued a statement against the wishes of its benefactor. “I can’t answer that question,” said Kobeta. “I don’t mean to be evasive.”

Company officials with Home Depot’s corporate offices in Atlanta downplayed the public’s response to the announcement, but other employees around the country said customer reaction to the PFLAG grant was unusually strong and negative.

“The response has been mixed, if you will,” said Home Depot public relations manager Don Harrison. “The larger percentage of calls were from people who objected to it.

“I wasn’t personally surprised” by the response, said Harrison, adding that the company received “quite a few calls on it.”

Harrison attributed many of the customer calls to the mistaken impression that Home Depot was entering an ongoing relationship with PFLAG. The relationship, in fact, is limited at this time to 100 gift certificates.

But employees at two Home Depot stores contacted by CNSNews.com had a different characterization of customer reaction to the PFLAG grant.

“I have never heard anything like this before,” said one employee at a Home Depot store in the Mid-Atlantic. “It was so overwhelming, we weren’t sure what to make of it,” said the employee, who asked to not be identified.

The employee said the customer response at that particular store was “overwhelmingly against” the Home Depot grant, regardless of whether it was on a short-term or long-term basis. “They just said this is wrong and might start buying at Lowes,” which is another large home improvement chain that competes with Home Depot.

Another employee at a Home Depot store in a southern state said she and her co-workers were caught off-guard by the response from customers.

“We didn’t know a thing about this promotion,” she said on the condition of anonymity. “It didn’t sound right, but these days, who knows?”

The woman said that as of the afternoon of June 6, she could not recall any customers who approved of the corporate grant. “They really don’t like it at all, and a lot of them are really mad,” she said.

Home Depot’s grant to PFLAG is relatively minor and one of thousands considered each year by the company, which has a market capitalization of some $115 billion and has a charitable contributions budget of about $25 million, a company official said.

“We made a small $2,500 grant to PFLAG to assist with their work with families who are experiencing difficult times with their family members’ acknowledgement of their sexual orientation,” said Home Depot Vice President of Community Relations Suzanne Apple, adding that the company employs seven people whose job is to process and evaluate grant requests.

Apple said the PFLAG grant is one of about 30,000 awarded annually by the company. Apple said Home Depot awards grants to organizations whose work focuses on housing, the environment, disaster preparedness and relief, and youth at risk, which she said is “how we viewed,” the PFLAG grant request.

Apple said groups seeking grants may apply through the company’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta or through individual Home Depot stores.

While Home Depot policy prohibits awarding grants to religious organizations for religious purposes, Apple said, “We do work with faith-based organizations,” including the Association of Catholic Charities, the YMCA and the Atlanta Jewish Community Center, which she said operates a troubled teens program.

Among the biggest recipients of Home Depot’s philanthropy is Habitat for Humanity, which helps build houses for low-income families. The company has given about $5 million to the group over the past decade, Apple said.
Hogensen is CNSNews.com’s executive editor. Used by permission.

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  • Scott Hogenson