Friday, October 28, 2005

Do Leaky Boats Always Sink?

Wal-Mart, like any good ruthless multinational, is always looking for new ways to cut costs. I don't think many people were surprised at the contents of a recently leaked internal memo that suggests, among other things, "discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart" and shifting workers to low-premium, high-deductible health insurance plans. Maybe these are sensible options from a business standpoint and maybe they're not, but they certainly don't do much to improve the company's public image. This article is currently (as of midday Oct. 27, 2005) the #1 most emailed NYT piece, so word is spreading far and fast, and I can't imagine the top brass is happy about it.

See, Wal-Mart's been spending lots of money and resources on public diplomacy initatives like NPR sponsorship, the website, its eight community-relations offices across the country, and high-profile Katrina relief efforts. All this PR is aimed at convincing the American public that the world's largest corporation actually cares about the little people--and then a memo implying the exact opposite hits media front pages. There's no way to verify this, but I'm guessing that the bang/buck ratio is much higher for this little revelation than for all Wal-Mart's PR efforts combined. Information not intended for public consumption is presumed to be much more indicative of an organization's "true" inner workings than its public image, which suggests that a single inopportune leak can have a more significant effect on public opinion than months of steady propaganda inundation.

However, this isn't always the case. Consider the Downing Street Memo--widely cited as a "smoking gun" of the Bush Administration's premature intent to invade Iraq by antiwar critics, war supporters and the American public mostly discounted or ignored it. It's tough to say why, though: the media's reluctance to follow through on the story undoubtedly contributed, as did the administration's refusal to comment. Another factor may have been that Democrats had been hurling allegations of intelligence misuse for over a year before the memo surfaced, so it may have simply seemed like more of the same to casual observers. But it's also possible that many Americans either refused to believe (out of naiveté) or didn't care (due to faith in democratization through violence) that their government would lie to them about something as serious as war. If this last point has any merit, it would seem that we're better at calling out duplicity in corporate boardrooms than we are at seeing it in the White House in wartime. Why that is, I can't say.