The Industry vs. the Media: Observations

Are press, public perceptions of retailers' role in gas prices changing for the better?

Greg Lindenberg, Editor, CSP

OAK BROOK, Ill. -- Over the years, the gasoline retailing industry's relationship with local and national media has largely been adversarial, increasingly so as the price offuel rises. And the media's often negative take on the industry has always been both a cause and an effect of consumer disgruntlement over fuel prices. So as $4 unleaded regular gasoline starts popping up around the nation, retailers are braced for the usual attacks from both fronts.

But lately, the word seems to be out. Over the last couple of gasoline price-hike cycles, rather than simply perpetuate the misperception [image-nocss] that all gas stations are operated by greedy representatives of profiteering Big Bad Oil, a slowly increasing number of reporters appears to be digging a bit deeper and going beyond the brand and price sign to try to get the complete story straight.

This new level of awareness can in part be attributed to better education courtesy of industry organizations. The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), for example, has a media/public relations toolkitto help retailers make their case to the media and the public, that they make little on gasoline and must make up for it through the sale of candy, soda, cigarettes and other in-store products and services: "To counter slim profit margins for gasoline sales…stores seek to drive profits by growing their in-store sales, whether coffee, sandwiches, financial services or cold beverages. Virtually any item in the store can carry a healthier profit margin that a fillup at the pump."

So does the media "get it" now? And are consumers more understanding? Unfortunately, despite this hopeful uptick in more objective coverage, those assumptions are still probably a bit premature, as the results of two Kraft/CSP Daily News Polls possibly demonstrate.

On the consumer front, a recent poll asked readers, "What is the current mood of motorists buying gasoline at your retail outlets compared to other times of high fuel prices?" Of the 167 respondents, 67.7% said "worse," 27.5% said the "same" and only 4.8% said "better."

On the media front, a recent poll asked readers, " Have you or anyone from your company been contacted recently by your local media to discuss rising gas prices?" Of the 128 responses, 62.5% said "no" and 37.5% "yes." Although the percentage of respondents answering "yes" is most likely up, it is still relatively low.

And there are still plenty of "old-school" reports accusing retailers of gouging without offering the retailers' and industry's side of the story, and juxtaposing high retail prices with high profits for Major Oil without putting those profits into an integrated oil company and global economic-geopolitical context.

Anecdotal evidence is fairly favorable, however. An informal, random sampling of newspaper, TV and web reports over the past few weeks has found a growing number of headlines such as"Gouging myth out of gas: When you're paying more at the pump, don't blame the station owner. He feels your pain" from CNNMoney and"Gas Stations Benefit Little From Record Prices, Look Inside Their Stores for Profits"from the Associated Press.

Most of these stories contain input from local retailers. Here is a small-but-representative selection of those media reports from around the nation:

"Costs are 'killing' gas-station owners"(The Herald-Leader, Kentucky).

"Retailers feeling the pinch of gas prices, too" (The Sheboygan Press, Wisconsin).

"High Gas Prices Hurting Mom-And-Pop Convenience Stores"(CFNews13 TV, Florida).

"Gas Stations Struggling"(KREXTV, Colorado).

"Higher gas prices also causing problems for gas stations"(MyFox Gulf Coast TV, Alabama).

"Pain at the pump: Gas stations feeling the crunch, too"(The Bakersfield Californian).

"High Fuel Prices Hurt Gas Station Owners"(KELOLAND TV, South Dakota).

"Gas station owners say profits slim despite price increases"(The Eagle-Tribune, Massachusetts).

"Gas Station Owners Also Feeling The Pinch At The Pump"(WHAG-TV, Maryland).

"Gas station owners feel your pain; do the candidates?"
(Beaver County Times, Pennsylvania).

"Gas stations' bread and butter"(The Star Tribune, Minnesota).

"Small stations feel gas pinch"(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia).

"Forget fuel—gas stations cash in on food, coffee, cigarettes"(The Press Democrat, California).

"Convenience stores placing stock in shelves, not pumps"(The Des Moines Register, Iowa)."Fuel prices hurt station owners"(The Burlington Free Press, Vermont).Please participate in today's poll in this issue of CSP Daily News: "Are you finding that despite high fuel prices, the media and the motoring public are less hostile to gasoline retailers than before because retailers and the industry are doing a better job of getting the message out that they are struggling, too?"