Wal-Mart's relief efforts prove priceless

There may be no greater challenge to a bloated national bureaucracy than staging nimble reactions to sudden disasters.

There may be no greater challenge to a bloated national bureaucracy than staging nimble reactions to sudden disasters.

Tragic events often happen in the blink of an eye, which is a lot less time than it takes to stop a massive organization in its tracks and re-deploy countless underpaid staffers on an entirely new mission. It's like parallel parking an oil tanker.

But Wal-Mart pulled it off.

In a week when that other bloated national bureaucracy, the federal government, displayed massive incompetence in the face of desperate need, it was the oft-despised Wal-Mart that shone through as a beacon of efficiency, competence, and charity.

According to The Washington Post, CEO H. Lee Scott told top execs just hours after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast that the retailer's response must be proportional to its size and ability - a remarkably socialist approach for a company that could have made Ayn Rand reconsider communism.

So Wal-Mart made a cash donation totaling more than $20 million, and threw in 15,000 truckloads of free merchandise, 100,000 free meals, a few mobile pharmacies, and the promise of an unconditional work transfer for all displaced employees. All this while the store was being forced to shutter 18 locations and announce reduced expectations for the quarter.

Even we aren't cynical enough to suggest that Wal-Mart's response was part of its ongoing effort to rehab the company's image. However, we're not above pointing out that a decade of media summits and press kits couldn't earn this kind of goodwill from the media.

All due respect to our readership, this only proves that the most potent PR efforts don't start with the PR department.

  • Douglas Quenqua writes PR Play of the Week. He is PRWeek's news editor.

    Ratings: 1. Clueless 2. Ill-advised 3. On the right track 4. Savvy 5. Ingenious

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