Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Empire Strikes Back

Wal-Mart made the NYT front page again a couple days ago, this time for recruiting veteran political PR mavens to shine up its lackluster public image and combat anti-WM propaganda. The article relates that founding father Sam Walton considered public relations a waste of money and probably wouldn't have approved the establishment of a political campaign-style "war room" to win over the hearts and wallets of conscientious consumers. But the six-armed beast over on the right has the senior management running scared--it's the mascot for a recently released documentary called Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which harshly criticizes the retail giant's business practices. Executives have cited Wal-Mart's public image as a factor in its withering stock prices from 2000 forward, and they're worried that the film might exacerbate the trend, especially if it becomes a cult hit.

It looks to me like Wal-Mart's fighting a losing battle here. Successfully convincing concerned and intelligent shoppers (a coveted demographic) that it's as interested in taking care of its front-line employees as it is in fattening its profit margins would be a milestone triumph of public relations. The company's trying to have it both ways, but it will fail as long as the public eye sees the tension between worker protections and profit-mindedness as a zero-sum tradeoff. As propaganda, the documentary benefits from the popular stereotype of the greedy corporation squeezing the common man and woman for all they're worth, and what we know about Wal-Mart's attitude toward its employees dovetails with that portrayal.

My girlfriend will be hosting a screening of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price in a couple weeks, and I'll post a review soon after I see it. I also may try and track down a copy of the WM-backed answer film Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy and review that as well.