A year ago, Colleen Rooney joined Signet Jewelers as chief communications & CSR officer with the charge of growing its comms function in line with the company’s stature as the world’s largest diamond jeweler. At that time, Signet was already in the midst of a transformation, with an increased focus on virtual sales and social initiatives among other facets of the business. All of which laid the groundwork for the challenges Signet and its retail brands — Kay, Zales and Jared among others — faced when Covid-19 shut down its roughly 3,200 stores (some of which won’t reopen), begging the question: how do you sell diamonds during a pandemic? In an interview with PRovoke, Rooney discusses the role comms played in keeping business alive through measures from offering customers online consultations to virtual weddings (led by Signet employees ordained as ministers to boot). An edited transcript:

Signet is a 70-year-old, $6.2 billion company. What has sparked the move to beef up communications now?

We have an incredible CEO, and I have worked with some great ones. But Gina Drosos is probably one of the best because she really understands transformation. She comes from P&G so she knows the power of communications and content, so we talked about how we really should be a mini media company and be much more proactive storytellers to drive awareness of our corporate brand and all the companies in our portfolios.

Communications had been a little more of a traditional, risk-adverse function. Function was a little more focused on corporate comms only, and I would say maybe more reactive than proactive. We are a consumer company so one of the first things we did was build a consumer PR function. There were no consumer agencies before. We did a pilot in the first three months to see how a consumer PR worked to benefit the brands, and since Gina is such a smart marketer we did an ROI on investment.  We found every dollar spent on PR was equivalent to $100 spent on ads. So now today we have a very healthy PR function where we average a billion impressions a month. And that’s doing things ourselves and working with boutique firms.

What is that story?

Signet is a leader in responsible sourcing, and we are now on a mission of (operating on) a more ESG framework and being a leader in all things related to societal change. So our boiler plate is that we are the world’s largest diamond jeweler retailer. But our mission says, ‘celebrate life and express love.’ And obviously bridal and engagement is a very big piece of our businesses.

Jewelry has been around since King Tut. Our jewelry consultants are like trusted jewelers and friends to clients. We are evolving into a more purpose-led company, especially in this time we realize we can lead positive change by fostering love.  Jewelry is the product but it’s really being a community of good corporate citizens trying to inspire more love.

Purpose has become a lens for our company. When we were all outraged, horrified with George Floyd, it was important for us to be with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund through donation. When we wanted to make sure our team members were (being heard), we launched a new series called Signet speaks out, which is a quarterly check-in when leaders speak about what it’s like to be Black in America. It is for us to use our corporate voice to celebrate Pride not just in June but throughout the year. In the middle of Covid, we lead with our values. We closed our stores when we realized it should be done, a week before any mandate. It was difficult, 90% of our revenue traditionally comes from store sales, but the right thing to do. And it has been an amazing personal experience. I have ever seen engagement with our team like we have had in any other company.

How were you able to do that and survive the shift?

Gina built the foundation for being a digital-first, customer-first company. We have done amazing things with hundreds of thousands of virtual appointments, we have done virtual weddings, online concierge service. Customer demand for our products did not slow down during Covid. We just had to find different ways that we were there for them when everyone was on lockdown.

Diamond jewelry seems like a pretty big purchase to make sight unseen.

Think about it this way. Literally more than half our team members today can be virtual jewelry consultants using technology that we built and was fast-tracked during Covid. We are about 90% reopened today but those who don’t want to can do virtual selling while they are in the store and customers are on the couch. We are very fortunate that we have proprietary imagery software where we can showcase our diamonds and jewelry in a way that is on par with how you would experience it in a store. I also think it is really helping consumers have confidence as they are coming back into stores because they have had such a good time getting to know our people and our products.

And even with the notion of there being insurmountable challenges during Covid, consumers still wanted to get engaged and get married. So we found a way to do virtual weddings (more than 200 have already taken place). 74 members of our team became ordained ministers. We had parking lot proposals, where our very safe employees would deliver rings from a distance. We just like our purpose. We are more in the business of manifesting love then just (selling) the product itself.