Wal-Mart dismisses claim of letter-writing effort

BENTONVILLE, AK: Wal-Mart has said that it is not behind executives and employees writing pro-company letters to editors as part of a new PR strategy.

BENTONVILLE, AK: Wal-Mart has said that it is not behind executives and employees writing pro-company letters to editors as part of a new PR strategy.

Letters that have been written to The New York Times, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Akron Beacon Journal, among others, are "sincere letters from our associates who want to defend our company - not PR campaigns," said Sarah Clark, a Wal-Mart PR person quoted in a Reuters story February 1 on Wal-Mart PR efforts. The Reuters story included the letter writing in Wal-Mart's efforts to improve its image. "Officials at the world's largest company have started firing off letters to the editor responding to critical news articles and editorials," Reuters wrote under the headline "Wal-Mart on PR Offensive to Repair Image." Wal-Mart last year had to deal with news of an employee-discrimination suit filed by female workers and with allegations - which the company denied - that Wal-Mart knew one of its outside contractors was using illegal-immigrant labor. Despite those reports, however, the giant retailer received overall positive media coverage last year, according to an annual survey by Delahaye Medialink. Wal-Mart finished third among the 100 largest US companies in that survey, down one notch from its second-place finish the year before. Even stories about workplace and employment issues at Wal-Mart generally contained comments about how Wal-Mart keeps prices down for its customers, producing what was judged as balanced coverage, said Mark Weiner, CEO at Delahaye. Wal-Mart's Clark said in written response to PRWeek that Reuters was looking at the letter-writing activity in conjunction with Wal-Mart executive speeches and advertisements, and interpreting all of those as part of an overall PR campaign. Clark refused further comment, writing, "We need to spend our time developing and executing solid communications programs that reach our key stakeholders with the truth, rather than spend a bunch of time talking about it." Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, noted that letter writing can be an effective PR technique for companies getting unfavorable publicity "if the letters are basically original and they're not sending out a form letter. It certainly won't hurt anything, and it might help somewhat." Smith recalled that banks launched a highly effective letter-writing campaign when a change in federal banking regulation was being discussed in Washington in the early 1980s. More recently, two years ago Kmart started a website its customers could write with pro-Kmart letters. The site was designed to buoy employee spirit and help Kmart's image while it navigated its way through bankruptcy.

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