Walmart's efforts to enter big city can change its PR fortunes

This month, Walmart will tackle a monumental PR challenge when the New York City Council holds a hearing on the chain's push to open stores in the city

This month, Walmart will tackle a monumental PR challenge when the New York City Council holds a hearing on the chain's push to open stores in the city. The struggle is a familiar one for the chain. Five years ago, it attempted to open stores in Queens and Staten Island and was faced with strong opposition.

This time it's using Mayor Michael Bloomberg's former campaign manager Bradley Tusk to coordinate lobbying efforts. Walmart has a new approach, with plans for smaller stores that carry fresh food. However, the opposition against the retail giant remains strong.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York that until 10 years ago was run by small businesses. Around that time, plans were developed to build a large shopping center that would feature a Walmart Supercenter. I remember the same types of campaigns launched by outraged small-business owners and community leaders who were against the construction and, specifically, the introduction of Walmart into the community.

The center now not only contains Walmart, but Target, Home Depot, Best Buy, Home Goods, and other retail chains. None of the others, however, faced the same resistance as Walmart. Maybe the reason for that is because Walmart paved the way, but the public sentiment in the community toward it still remains low.

In many conversations over the years, people have told me how much they love Target and how they avoid shopping at Walmart if at all possible. One of the differences between the two is PR.

I can recall specific CSR efforts in my community from Target. I can visualize signs in the store touting that 5% of sales are given back to the local community. I don't have that relationship with Walmart.

Walmart had become the poster child of the corporate giant that comes in and destroys local businesses and communities, but it has made strides in the past couple years to overcome the stigma. The company has acknowledged the stereotype and fought back with solid PR campaigns, something it must keep doing in earnest.

The task is not easy, as even the aspect of bringing more jobs to the city is plagued by a recent employee discrimination lawsuit.

Using a multi-faceted approach, Walmart must promote the CSR programs it will bring to the community, work with small businesses worried about lost revenues, and recognize nonprofit partnerships to bring affordable, healthy food choices to the local population.

Using this battle as a way to spread the message that the company can in fact provide added value to a community could be a major PR success in the ongoing process of turning its image around. 

Lindsey Siegriest is the news editor of PRWeek. She can be contacted at lindsey.siegriest@prweek.com.

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