As Walmart's Leslie Dach prepares to exit the top communications role at one of the most scrutinized companies in the world, PR leaders say his successor should continue his work to help the retailer be more transparent and tackle important social issues.
Dach, who has served as EVP of corporate affairs and government relations at Walmart for the past seven years, will step down from the role in June. He will leave behind a legacy of reputation-boosting initiatives, yet his replacement will face the ongoing challenge of influencing the company's business strategy and internal culture to improve the company's image, communications executives tell PRWeek.
When Dach arrived at Walmart in 2006, the company was more closed to dealing with criticism and communicating with employees, customers, and communities. Public opponents claimed Walmart treated employees poorly, sent jobs overseas, harmed the environment, and undermined small businesses.
“Far too many clients I used to have wanted to be more loved but weren't willing to actually become a better business,” recalls Dach, who spent 17 years at Edelman before joining Walmart. “Their feeling was they were misunderstood or needed more publicity. When you went to them and said you fundamentally need to do things better, they didn't want to. To me that's the key: the company was willing to invest to be a better business.”
Dach recognized that good communications was just one factor needed to turn around the company's reputation, observers say. Since then, Walmart has made progress on issues from the environment and sustainability to women's empowerment, health, and employment. The company introduced $4 generic prescriptions and healthier foods; expanded its renewable energy use; increased its sourcing from US- and women-owned businesses; and pledged to hire returning veterans, among other initiatives.
“He built a model for making a difference on big issues that are integral to the business,” says Rob Hoppin, president of the firm Hillenby and a former EVP at Edelman, where he was global client relationship manager at Walmart. “He engaged suppliers, local communities, government leaders, even people who have been critical of the company. The company made big goals and commitments, but in specific ways.”
“[Dach] had a laser focus on the things that mattered most to people, and that's where we focused our attention,” adds Sarah Clark, president of Mitchell Communications, one of Walmart's PR agencies.
Yet as Dach passes the torch, blights remain on Walmart's reputation, including gender discrimination lawsuits, ongoing labor disputes, and a deadly fire in November at a Bangladeshi factory that made clothing for the retailer. Last year, The New York Times reported bribery by Walmart executives in Mexico, and investigations into those allegations continue.
“It shows you how difficult it is to change culture, and that if you don't change it, even the most enlightened work can be reversed,” says Alan Towers, president of reputation management consulting firm TowersGroup and senior adviser at Water & Wall Group. “You can't get back on track if those cultural components are lying in wait to sabotage what you've done. It is culture that determines behavior, and behavior determines reputation.”
With these challenges looming, whoever takes Dach's place must gain the ear of Walmart CEO Mike Duke, PR executives say. Dach reported directly to Duke and, before him, ex-CEO H. Lee Scott.
“One of the things [Dach] had going for him is he already had a strong relationship with Scott when he came in, because he had worked with him while at Edelman,” notes George Shelton, principal at the firm Company.Politics and former director at Walmart.“One of the smartest things he did when he joined the company was to continue to push for that access.”
At a company the size of Walmart, Dach's replacement should also keep in mind the importance of local outreach, says Levick EVP Michael Robinson. The company sometimes faces resistance when entering areas where critics say new stores threaten small businesses.
“When you're operating in that many places geographically, community relations at the grassroots level is absolutely key,” he adds. “At the end of the day, they have to find a way to communicate locally and ensure those who know shoppers best are those who can execute local programs.”
Walmart's next communications leader “will not be able to ride on [Dach's] coattails,” explains Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown.
“The key piece for whoever steps in is that they continue to let the sun shine in, still being transparent and having a commitment to recognizing where they can make improvements and delivering on them,” she says. “I would want to take a really good look under the hood for anything else that might be there that hasn't been dealt with yet.”
Dach himself has some advice for his successor.
“You can do big things if you want to help your company do the big things,” he says. “Just being in the pile is not good enough.”