Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Glimpse Behind the Façade?: Here’s the problem with the Wal-Mart charm offensive, launched last year in an attempt to give the retail giant a softer public image: it keeps running up against the reality of Wal-Mart. I wrote a column in PR Week last year suggesting that the company hadn’t really changed—that while it had invited critics to its Bentonville headquarters, it wasn’t really listening to them, just allowing them to talk.

Now comes a front page story in The New York Times about chief executive H. Lee Scott’s outburst on a private, internal website, after a manager asked him why the “largest company on the planet cannot offer some type of medical benefits?” Evans began by explaining that taking care of employees would put the company at a competitive disadvantage. But then he lost it, accusing the manager of disloyalty and suggesting he should quit.

The Times describes this as a “rare, unscripted moment.” That’s possible, but I suspect Evans was sending a signal, and the signal is: “Don’t believe the public relations campaign; we’re not going to change.”

Moreover, I suspect that when Evans sent the signal he knew it would end up on the front page of The New York Times. No senior executive at a large public company would expect an incident like this one to stay private. We are living in the age of transparency, and savvy managers have learned to use that fact. Watch Wal-Mart’s share price this morning. What are the odds it goes up?

This was a smart, credible way for Evans to deliver his “don’t believe the public relations campaign; we’re not going to change” message to investors worried that the company might actually mean what it was saying.

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