H&K helping Wal-Mart fix reputation in CA

LOS ANGELES: Wal-Mart is working with Hill & Knowlton on a PR campaign designed to rehabilitate the much-maligned company's reputation in California and pave the way for 40 new Wal-Mart Supercenters in the state in the next few years.

LOS ANGELES: Wal-Mart is working with Hill & Knowlton on a PR campaign designed to rehabilitate the much-maligned company's reputation in California and pave the way for 40 new Wal-Mart Supercenters in the state in the next few years.

"We've been relatively quiet in the face of fairly vicious attacks on us," said Cynthia Lin, Wal-Mart communications director for California.

Now the company is fighting back, starting with an open letter to California residents published in 15 newspapers statewide on September 23. Lin called the letter "the first step" in an ongoing communications program.

In the letter, Wal-Mart defended its record on wages and staff benefits, and touted itself as a valuable contributor to the state economy through tax revenue, employment opportunities, and low prices.

It also decried "negative comments from certain elected officials, competitors, and special- interest groups," characterizing some of the criticism as "half-truths and misinformation."

Wal-Mart has been a frequent target of unions that claim that the nation's largest retailer actively blocks efforts to organize workers. "Organized labor, particularly union leaders, have been very outspoken in their criticism of us," Lin said.

She asserted that staffers had opted to stay without union representation, but added, "We're not against unions."

Several of H&K's California offices are working with Wal-Mart on the PR effort, said Lin. The firm has been involved in the project for several months already, primarily handling media relations tasks.

The open letter cited Wal-Mart's $10.37 average hourly wage in California as "competitive," but a San Francisco Chronicle article put the average wage of unionized grocery cashiers in the state at $19 an hour.

Lin said that because Wal-Mart's figure wasn't for grocery workers, the statistic "[wasn't] an apples-to-apples comparison."

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