BENTONVILLE, AR: Wal-Mart's latest PR campaign is encountering resistance from a trade group offended by its media relations and ad-buying practices. The National Newspaper Association (NNA) is challenging the campaign, claiming that small newspapers have been ignored by the retail giant in the past.
In a January 21 letter to Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, NNA president Mike Huffington said local newspapers were insulted by the latest PR effort.
"They don't talk to us all year long for stories, advertising, or anything else," said Brian Steffens, executive director of the NNA. "When reporters go to the store, they're summarily escorted off the property. We only get to cover Wal-Mart when they're giving a check to a local charity."
The letter also raises the issue of Wal-Mart ignoring the small papers for advertising, but turning to them for "free PR."
"They want to get their message out to their associates and customers," Steffens said. "And they'll pay for it in markets where they don't have a presence, but they want it for free from those of us who do cover them in our communities.
"Wal-Mart has deep pockets," he added. "They made [the campaign] a story by buying the ads [in major dailies]."
But Steffens disagreed with critics who called his letter an endorsement of "pay-for-play" policies. "Cover the news that is happening in Wal-Mart in your town," he said of his advice to NNA members. "Just because these guys call up and say, 'Cover us,' the heck with that."
Al Norman, author of Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart!, said the retailer's past media dealings have been less than forthcoming.
"They often won't talk to reporters unless they feel it's a controlled story," he said. "[Wal-Mart] wants to use the media as a marketing tool, not a news tool."
Dan Fogleman, spokesman for Wal-Mart, said he was not aware of the NNA's stance.
"We feel we're very responsive to all members of the media," he said. "We make it a point to return phone calls to the extent humanly possible given the multitude of calls that come in."