Wal-Mart moves forward with new efforts, but falls back over memo

BENTONVILLE, AR: Wal-Mart unveiled several large-scale initiatives last week as part of an ongoing effort to bolster its corporate image, but was blindsided by the leak of an internal memo outlining a controversial strategy for revamping its healthcare plan.

BENTONVILLE, AR: Wal-Mart unveiled several large-scale initiatives last week as part of an ongoing effort to bolster its corporate image, but was blindsided by the leak of an internal memo outlining a controversial strategy for revamping its healthcare plan.

In a speech to employees last Monday, Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott outlined plans by the retailer to improve its environmental goals and provide better healthcare for workers. He also said that Wal-Mart supports an increase in the federal minimum wage, a departure from the company's previous stance.

"Many issues that we've dealt with from a defensive posture ... are now seen as an opportunity to embrace proactively," said Mona Williams, Wal-Mart VP of communications, explaining the impetus for Scott's speech.

Asked if Wal-Mart would actively lobby for a minimum wage increase, Williams said, "We're still working on our plans there."

The speech included details of a new employee healthcare plan that would go into effect January 1. But that news was overshadowed by a New York Times report on the leaked memo, which discussed the company's weaknesses and strategy for selling its future healthcare changes in the court of public opinion.

The memo said Wal-Mart's critics could effectively exploit the facts that its healthcare coverage is expensive and that many employees are on public assistance. It also outlined a series of proposed changes to its healthcare plan and said the company is testing them "to determine whether these investments would effectively 'move the needle' on Wal-Mart's public reputation."

Williams said PR was only a secondary concern when developing healthcare and other initiatives, but added, "I'd be the first to admit that how folks see us certainly weighs into those decisions."

Edelman, which was brought on recently to handle reputation issues, said in a statement, "Edelman was involved in these matters as part of our overall relationship with Wal-Mart."

Williams said the agency has provided counsel on responding to the memo leak.

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