Walmart’s communications department lives by the mantra "no free shots," meaning that no one – not even The New York Times – gets to take what the retailer sees as a cheap shot without a response.
So when the retail giant’s communications team saw an op-ed in the Times last week that it felt got a number of major facts wrong, it replied in a unique way: by posting an "edited" version of the piece on its website.
The dispute began last Thursday, when Times columnist Timothy Egan’s op-ed, The Corporate Daddy, berated Walmart for being a "net drain on taxpayers, forcing employees into public assistance with its poverty-wage structure." It chided the world’s largest public company for its "humiliating" salaries and said it "is a big part of the problem" of income inequality in the US.
In response, Walmart corporate communications VP David Tovar posted an "edited" version of what the company mocked as the column’s "first draft" on Walmart’s blog on Friday. He factually, as well as grammatically, edited the NYT piece and rebuked several of Egan’s claims.
"[Walmart’s] media-relations function engages with every reporter who contacts us about stories," Tovar says about the company’s strategy. "Because of this, we expect all stories about Walmart to be fair and balanced."
If it deems a story "factually inaccurate, unfair, or out of context," it typically follows up in one of a variety of ways. For instance, if a piece has been published online, Tovar’s team might call the reporter directly to have a conversation about it and try to get him to update with "correct" information.
Alternatively, if a story appeared in print, Walmart might write a letter to the editor or post comments on the publication’s website.
"In this case, the reporter didn’t contact us or let us know he was working on that particular column," says Tovar. "Had he reached out to us, we would have had an open and transparent dialogue with him, walking him through information about our jobs, wages, benefits, or any of the things he was writing about."
He adds that after reading Egan’s column, Walmart’s comms team tried to determine the best way to respond. As it read through the op-ed and marked it up, Tovar says a colleague suggested posting the edited draft on Walmart’s blog.
To create awareness of the rebuttal, the comms team included it in a weekly email Walmart sends out each Friday to a database of several hundred journalists who cover the retailer. It also pushed the reply on its social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter.
"The ultimate goal is to inform anyone who read the op-ed about the good jobs and opportunities we offer at Walmart," explains Tovar. "We wanted to use this as an opportunity to educate and inform the public about the facts."
As of Wednesday morning, Tovar says he has not heard back from Egan or the Times after reaching out via email to the columnist.
In an emailed statement, Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal writes that the paper stands by the column, which was "thoroughly fact-checked."
"[The column] does what opinion pieces should do: makes a compelling argument addressing possibly the most important issue facing Americans today – inequality," he writes. "The fact that Walmart thought this issue was something to have fun with says volumes about their practices."
Walmart’s strategy: effective or petty?
Communications professionals disagreed about the effectiveness of Walmart’s "novel" response to the op-ed.
The reply could actually bring more attention to Egan’s column, noted RLM Finsbury US president Stephen Labaton. Yet the retailer is also "setting the record straight" before others cite the Times op-ed as fact, he adds.
"[Walmart’s] response illustrates that, in the digital age, there are no barriers to responding to a negative article and reaching a broad audience," explains Labaton, a former senior writer at the Times.
Bill Wohl, president and founder of Wohl Communications and a former comms leader at Hewlett-Packard and SAP, says Walmart’s redraft was a "novel and interesting" way to engage the reader with both writers’ points of view.
"I like an approach where companies are willing to occasionally push back, even against major media, and say there may be a different way to look at this issue," he explains. "This sends a signal that [Walmart’s PR team] will from time to time use its own ability to self-publish to provide a balanced viewpoint."
However, Wohl adds that it isn’t a good idea to respond this overtly to every situation, though he doesn’t believe the move has the potential to backfire on Walmart or harm the company’s relationship with the media.
Not all communicators who spoke with PRWeek agreed with the tactic. Philip Elwood, VP in Levick’s corporate reputation practice, calls Walmart’s strategy in this instance "juvenile and ineffective," suggesting the company could have submitted a response to the Times or put its CEO, Doug McMillon, or Tovar on TV to debate the topic with Egan.
"I am really not sure how this is going to go. How do you even measure if this is effective?" he asks. "How many page views will this get compared with Egan’s column? I have to imagine Egan is going to get a few more impressions."
Elwood contends that Walmart’s decision to revise the op-ed will not win it points in the court of public opinion with customers or employees.
"As somebody who has worked in PR for over a decade, I really hope this isn’t where my profession is going," he says. "I like to engage in debates that are good and substantive."
Other comms experts weighed in on Twitter:
Smart PR: Walmart hits back at New York Times column http://t.co/s6pkEdaylk— Emily Buchanan (@emilybuchanan) June 25, 2014
A great "fact check" by Walmart showing just how one-sided a story can be. http://t.co/W4LiV3EFFJ— Katie McBreen (@KWMcBreen) June 24, 2014
Creative approach by Walmart to use their own channels for fact checking the NYT. http://t.co/MI91A5FJkd— Frank X. Shaw (@fxshaw) June 23, 2014