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.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Wal-Mart's Friends & Family: Wal-Mart is calling on its suppliers to help it address its image problems, according to a report in The New York Times.

Given that the report is the handiwork of Michael Barbaro, who wears his anti-Wal-Mart agenda on his sleeve (he broke the shocking story that Wal-Mart sends information to bloggers as well as mainstream reporters) I’m inclined to take much of it with a pinch of salt, but it does provide an opportunity to talk about coalition-building and corporate grassroots.

The Bentonville behemoth is inviting suppliers to join a group called Working Families for Wal-Mart, which describes itself as autonomous, despite the fact that (according to Barbaro) half of its steering committee members have business ties to the company and Wal-Mart provides “significant financial help.” Barbaro reports that many suppliers feel the company put “improper pressure” on them to join the group, although the quotes he provides do not appear to support that contention.

Having said that, I think companies need to be exceptionally careful when it comes to creating groups with names that include “Citizens” or “Families” or “Americans” for Whatever. All too often, such groups are mere fronts for the corporation, their titles justified by the fact that, hey, the CEO and PR director of the companies are citizens, they have families, and are all American, so there’s nothing really dishonest about the name, is there?

There is a difference between genuine grassroots—and yes, there are genuine grassroots groups that support corporations, like the pro-animal testing group launched in the U.K. earlier this year—and Astroturf in this context, even if the line between the two is not as sharp as some would like.

To figure out which side of the line a group is on, there are several questions worth asking: Was it formed spontaneously by employees, customers or suppliers, or was it instigated by the company? Would it continue to exist without company funding? Do most of its members come from outside the company management structure? Do most of its members make a financial contribution to the group? Are they allowed to vote on the group’s leadership? Is the group free to take positions that vary from the official positions of the company?

If the answer to most of those questions is no, it seems to me you’re dealing with a front group rather than a genuine grassroots organization. And if the answers to those questions are not readily apparent or available, you’re definitely dealing with a front group. That’s not to say its views should not carry any weight—even front groups can represent legitimate points of view—but it does mean that it should be treated as an extension of the company’s PR department, not as an autonomous entity.

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