Wal-Mart on PR campaign to repair image

  • Business
  • Wednesday, 04 Feb 2004

CHICAGO: Wal-Mart Stores Inc is tired of critics who say it is a behemoth bent on destroying small-town America, driving down wages and shipping jobs to foreign sweat shops.  

Wal-Mart, Fortune magazine’s “most admired company,” is also among the most sued. Dozens of cases claiming sex discrimination and wage violations have stained its image. Editorials deplore how low-paid Wal-Mart workers must sign up for welfare to make ends meet.  

Even men’s magazine Playboy got in on the act, calling Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters the “epicentre of retailing’s evil empire.” But after years of abiding unflattering views, the empire is striking back with a tough new public relations strategy.  

“No one likes to hear someone say something negative about their family,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark. “There are some things out there that are totally inaccurate, and we’re looking to set the record straight.”  

Officials at the world’s largest company have started firing off letters to the editor responding to critical news articles and editorials. Once-reticent Wal-Mart executives are speaking out more in the hopes of cleaning up the world’s largest retailer’s stained image.  

The company has also altered its advertising campaign to showcase women managers and others who have benefited from working there.  

Besides top management, Clark said store employees have taken it upon themselves to write letters, with no directive from headquarters.  

In the last few weeks, Wal-Mart’s benefits manager wrote to The New York Times to explain the retailer’s much-maligned health insurance plan, and a district manager sent a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune to “share some things that aren’t so bad about us” after a series of stories.  

Chief executive Lee Scott wrote to Ohio’s Akron Beacon Journal after a columnist said Wal-Mart deserved some blame for the closing of a local factory owned by Newell Rubbermaid Inc, one of the retailer’s major suppliers. In January, he became the first Wal-Mart chief executive officer to speak at the National Retail Federation trade group’s conference. In a speech that he acknowledged sounded defensive at times, he chided the media for heavy coverage of the company’s legal troubles, massive imports from China and employee health-care policies.  

Other executives have also started banging the drum. “We are not popular with a lot people,” vice-chairman Tom Coughlin said at the grand opening of a new Wal-Mart store in San Antonio in January. “If our wages and benefits were so bad, we wouldn’t have had that type of attraction with the customer,” he was quoted as saying in the San Antonio Express-News.  

Despite the more aggressive approach, public relations experts say Wal-Mart’s image-improvement efforts are not enough to shore up its reputation. “For years they’ve been a classic example of the wrong way to do PR,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management. 

“They’re going to continue to get beat up as long as they basically have a reputation for being unfair or unreasonable to their employees,” he said. “All the damage control in the world can’t help them unless their policies change.” – Reuters  

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