Bentonville, AR: Wal-Mart has gone on the PR offensive as it faces what could become the largest employee discrimination suit ever filed in the US.
When it learned in late April that defendants in a suit originally filed in 2001 planned to seek class-action status for the case, Wal-Mart decided to mobilize key executives, store managers, and its PR operation to respond to allegations in the suit that female Wal-Mart employees were discriminated against.
"When the crisis occurred, we already had an infrastructure throughout the company ready to help us immediately," said Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's VP of communications.
When the Today show and the Los Angeles Times contacted Wal-Mart on April 25 saying they planned stories on the discrimination suit the following Monday, Wal-Mart agreed to appear on the show and respond to questions from the Times.
Williams flew to New York that Sunday to meet with APCO, Wal-Mart's crisis PR counsel since summer 2001, and prepare for the Today show appearance.
She appeared on the Monday broadcast with a female Wal-Mart store manager who could tell positive experiences about her time with the retailer. During the interview, Williams apologized to one of the plaintiffs, also on the show, but said that if she had been discriminated against, it did not reflect Wal-Mart corporate policy.
Wal-Mart spent the Friday before the Today show identifying 20 female store managers in strategic markets who could be frontline spokespeople for the company when local media called about the suit.
For the past year, Wal-Mart has also been training roughly 200 senior executives to become more aware of brand- and corporate-reputation issues. The group meets on Friday of every week. "Doing media work is a priority for every one of them," said Williams.
Earlier in its corporate history, Wal-Mart had been known to be media shy. But for this suit, "the reason we were proactive is that this has such an impact on our reputation," said Williams. "We're going to continue doing our proactive work to position Wal-Mart as a good employer."
Wal-Mart's legal team has worked closely with PR, and did not object to the proactive PR strategy. It was "enlightened enough to see that if you don't consider the PR, you could win the suit and lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the public," Williams explained.
Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, gave Wal-Mart high marks for its efforts. "Wal-Mart has been pretty good in recent years about dealing with its PR issues head-on," he said.