At its media summit, Wal-Mart stresses openness to journalists, benefits to community

ROGERS, AR: Wal-Mart president and CEO Lee Scott came out swinging against his company's many critics yesterday as the retail behemoth kicked off its first-ever media summit.

ROGERS, AR: Wal-Mart president and CEO Lee Scott came out swinging against his company's many critics yesterday as the retail behemoth kicked off its first-ever media summit.

Labor unions and community groups that attack the chain and its practices "want to protect the status quo. It is self-serving," said Scott.

Scott and other speakers at the company's two-day conference emphasized message points that have become familiar since Wal-Mart began its communications push earlier this year: the benefits it provides consumers, employees, and the communities that house its stores.

Mona Williams, VP of communications, told the more than 50 reporters at the conference that Wal-Mart was holding the meeting because "we want to send a signal to you that we want to be open to you in the media and we want to get to know you."

But the persistence of Wal-Mart critics was made evident earlier in the week. The AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union held a teleconference denouncing the two-day event on Monday. It featured two women suing Wal-Mart for discrimination and workmen's compensation issues; an anti-Wal-Mart activist from Cleveland; a Georgia state legislator; and others.

Another group, the Coalition for a Better Inglewood, held its own press conference Tuesday in the same hotel as the Wal-Mart summit. The group had opposed efforts by Wal-Mart to put a store in Inglewood, California.

Scott has no plans to speak with the California group. Others in the company would, he said.

Scott said he has spoken with NGOs but he gave no indication Wal-Mart sees any need to speak with unions.

"We actually do run a retail business as well as a public relations firm," he quipped.

In response to union concerns though, he and other speakers repeatedly referred to the number of people who apply for jobs at new Wal-Marts as evidence that the company provides good jobs with good benefits.

"[Union] leadership has declared war on Wal-Mart in the hope of either unionizing this company or making us go away," said Scott. "We don't think we need a union in the US, because our associates can come directly to any member of management to get their concerns addressed."

The company's current public relations effort was launched at the request of employees who have grown tired of hearing the company bashed in media reports, according to Scott.

"Our associates just got increasingly frustrated with me that we didn't have anyone talking about what we do," Scott said. "We had an obligation to speak up; I had an obligation to speak up."

Williams told PRWeek that she believes "most Wal-Mart associates have a very positive experience. We want to make sure the public knows a wider perspective. We'll do more to engage associates to help them tell their story."

But other executives made it clear they did not want a parade of employee endorsements. "Mostly you're going to hear it more from me," said Scott. Wal-Mart will also defuse critics who attack its pay and benefit levels by disclosing facts about such issues, Williams added.

Whether the retailer will use agencies in the effort hasn't been decided, she said.

The retail giant has been working with Hill & Knowlton on reputation issues and Fleishman-Hillard on merchandise promotional efforts, said Scott. The media conference was put together by Williams' staff without agency assistance.

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