The battle over Wal-Mart's reputation enters theaters

BENTONVILLE, AR: Wal-Mart's corporate reputation is going to the movies.

BENTONVILLE, AR: Wal-Mart's corporate reputation is going to the movies.

The giant retailer is testing its newfound strategy of proactively engaging its critics on a movie, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, which premiered in New York last week.

The film, by independent director Robert Greenwald, raises many of the familiar critical allegations against the company, including its purported depressive effect on small business, low wages, and discrimination.

Before the film's release, Wal-Mart distributed a media kit that offered rebuttals to several of the movie's clips posted on the internet. The kit also included two pages of quotes from negative reviews of Greenwald's other movies (e.g., "God awful," and "miserable movie").

To put a competing view in the public eye, the kit featured a press release about another independent film, Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Drives Some People C-r-a-z-y by Ron Galloway, that presents the company in a positive light.

Robert McAdam, Wal-Mart's VP of corporate affairs, said the company isn't promoting Galloway's film, other than with the press-kit materials. But he acknowledged that Wal-Mart gave Galloway access to film around stores and speak to employees, but denied Greenwald's request to interview CEO H. Lee Scott.

Wal-Mart's strategy of positioning the two films on an equal plane seems to be working. "So far, the reporting has been pretty balanced," McAdam said.

Galloway himself said Wal-Mart's mentions had garnered his film heavy media coverage. "The way I found out was from The New York Times," he said. "I've pretty much been getting calls from everywhere."

Greenwald is working with Ken Sunshine Associates, the firm that helped roll out Fahrenheit 9/11, on a grassroots promotional strategy. Through a web- site, people can order DVDs of the film and show them to groups of friends during "premiere week," November 13-19. More than 3,000 screenings are scheduled already, according to the site. The theatrical release, on the other hand, will be limited to a handful of theaters.

When asked last week if Wal-Mart representatives planned to attend the New York premiere of the film, McAdam said, "We haven't been invited." But a New York Times story the day after the premiere detailed the bizarre scene of Greenwald himself throwing a Wal-Mart consultant out of the premiere because he believed the man was trying to record the film on a cell phone camera, a charge the company denies.

McAdam said Edelman is involved in the company's film-related strategy as part of its ongoing work.

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