Paul Holmes

Wal-Mart may be boosting media outreach, but its communications skills still need work

Wal-Mart may be boosting media outreach, but its communications skills still need work

I suppose Wal-Mart deserves some sort of muted applause for the effort it made a couple of weeks ago to reach out to the media and address some of the criticism that has dogged it in recent years. But the Arkansas company's effort to present a more human

Like lots of companies that find themselves on the receiving end of negative media coverage, Wal-Mart seems to think the root of the problem is a failure to communicate. The company believes that if it just makes its argument more forcefully, it will prevail. But it's an argument - that the quest for higher profits and lower prices justifies almost any kind of behavior - that the company's critics find offensive. The more forcefully Wal-Mart makes it, the angrier its opponents become.

In any event, it's clear that the company's heart is not in it. CEO H. Lee Scott couldn't even keep up the pretense that PR mattered for a couple of days. His comment that "we actually do run a retail business, as well as a PR firm" is a pretty clear indication of his contempt for the process, his irritation at having to explain himself to reporters.

Not that the company is engaged in real communication here. It's talking to the media, but that's not the same thing as communicating. What was totally missing from Wal-Mart's "charm offensive" was any indication that it was ready to engage in dialogue with its critics, that it was listening as well as talking.

I suspect Scott, and many other members of the senior management team, would (behind closed doors) ask, "Why should we listen?" After all, the company remains number one on the Fortune 500, and it continues to rank among America's most admired corporations, according to the same magazine. And most customers still love Wal-Mart.

Of course they do. The immediate impact of its low-price strategy is both obvious and personal - people feel the benefit every time they walk into the store. The long-term consequences of its strategy - the downward pressure on wages, the contempt for workers' rights, the impact on local communities - is cumulative and distributed; it isn't immediately obvious and it is borne by society as a whole, not individual customers.

That said, Wal-Mart is beginning to feel a little heat, or it wouldn't be taking even these half-hearted steps to improve its image. Tom Schoewe, the company's CFO, admitted that "headline risk" has impacted the stock price. He added that the company has run into problems in Germany, where the law demands that decisions on everything from layoffs to ethics rules be made in consultation with workers' councils - and consultation is still anathema to the company.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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