Wal-Mart’s Big Chance

Weeks after heroically taking over for an impotent federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart finds whatever goodwill it earned to have evaporated.

Bracing itself for the release of an unflattering documentary by Robert Greenwald, the company has set up a so-called "war room" at its Bentonville headquarters. It is staffed with high profile ex-White House aides now employed by Edelman, such as Reagan image genius Michael Deaver and former Clinton advisor Leslie Dach.

This public relations operation runs counter to founder Sam Walton’s wishes, reports today’s New York Times. Walton apparently thought public relations to be a waste of time. Were he still alive today, he would have to change his mind.

Despite all the kudos accorded Wal-Mart for its bringing bargains to communities all over the country, its practices have come under increasingly harsh light, even by those who applaud the company’s entrepreneurship. Its wages are so low that some employees need government assistance to make ends meet. Its health insurance is inadequate. Cities are blocking the construction of new stores. The stock price has slid since 2000.

Wal-Mart’s critics include the usual cabal of whiners and complainers, especially labor unions, which still refuse to acknowledge their own obsolescence. The anti-Wal-Mart lobby also embraces the embittered Democratic Party left, upset that voters refused to heed its wise sage, Michael Moore, last Election Day. Their steady drumbeat of criticism is obviously taking a toll on the company’s image, however, so Wal-Mart realized that it had to do something. Enter Edelman.

For those of us in the public relations industry who hear our work derided as nothing more than mere "spin," this is a chance to prove otherwise. Let us all hope that the pros from Washington do more than put out PR brushfires. Wal-Mart has an opportunity to burnish its image by responding to reasonable criticism with constructive and concrete action. One can expect no less of America’s number one corporation.

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