Sunday, July 10, 2005

Walmart's PR War

Originally posted June 30, 2005
Yesterday I learned that Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in the world. According to an article in Fastcompany magazine, "last year, 7.5 cents of every dollar spent in any store in the United States (other than auto-parts stores) went to [Wal-Mart]." Obviously, lots of Americans love everyday low prices, even though one of the dearest costs of providing such savings is an ever-increasing loss of jobs to less expensive overseas labor. But for other Americans, myself included, the retail giant's name conjures vague memories of ugly reports on its poor treatment of female employees, stingy health insurance plans, and ruthlessness in undercutting competitors.

The potential effect of these negative perceptions on the bottom line is the likeliest explanation for, a PR site intended to restore the retailer's reputation as a good (or at least acceptable) corporate citizen. Advertising on web sites and NPR, among other venues I'm sure, Wal-Mart seems intent on assuaging common fears among the more politically and socially conscious circles of its consumer base. A section titled "News Desk" promises to "set the record straight" with "facts, not myths." The site's "Community Impact" page touts a recent "Wal-Mart Day of Service 2005" initiative in which over 250 employees from 12 Kentucky stores volunteered four hours of their time for an urban renewal project. And the "Associates Center" offers firsthand voices from eloquent, satisfied Wal-Mart employees.

Most of the information provided on the site is probably true, if a mite slanted. But more important than that issue is what the public is likely to think of a corporation that feels the need to create such a PR vehicle in the first place. It seems likely that most people who would voluntarily visit a site like would be at least somewhat aware of its unstated yet fairly transparent purpose: to manipulate public opinion. What chance does the site stand of achieving its goal when that goal is so readily apparent? Might it not have the opposite effect of indicating to visitors that the anti-Wal-Mart allegations actually have some merit?

Bad press or no, people love to feel like they're getting a deal, so I don't think Wal-Mart has to worry much about falling revenues. But I do think the company needs to hire a PR firm with a bit more subtlety, because coming right out and saying "we're really a good corporate citizen! No, really!" probably sends up more red flags than it cuts down.