When Wal-Mart Stores holds its first media conference in Arkansas next week, image consultants say the company needs to spell out how it...
NEW YORK — When Wal-Mart Stores holds its first media conference in Arkansas next week, image consultants say the company needs to spell out how it is dealing with controversial issues that continue to dog it, from gender discrimination to wage-and-hour violations.
“They need to persuade people they are bigger than people’s attitudes toward them,” said Clarke Caywood, professor of public relations at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
What’s important is for the world’s largest retailer to provide specifics about how it will execute better business practices, Caywood and other image experts say.
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Wal-Mart has a lot at stake. Its fast growth was fueled by its perception that it had the cheapest prices around.
But now that formula is in trouble as critics charge the retailer takes advantage of its employees and hampers competition.
It has had very public legal problems, paying a fine to settle federal charges that underage workers operated dangerous machinery, and agreeing to pay $11 million to settle charges that its cleaning contractors used illegal immigrants.
And it also faces very vocal opposition to some of its store openings. Such controversy comes as the discounter struggles with higher expenses and slower growth.
Despite Wal-Mart’s negative image, throngs of customers keep shopping at the stores, but that could change, image experts said.
“Any retailer has to be cautious about consumers’ opinions of their business ethics and practices,” said Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates, a New York public-relations firm.
Wal-Mart’s image also matters for investors, who have seen the stock go nowhere the past two years as shares of rival Target have steadily risen.
Wal-Mart’s officials declined to be specific about what they will say to the approximate 50 journalists expected to gather at the conference.
The goal, according to Gus Whitcomb, a Wal-Mart spokesman, is to “try to help journalists understand our business, how we do business, and about us as people.”
He added that he sees this as more of “an educational opportunity” than a newsmaking event.
Still, while plenty of public-relations experts applaud the rare event, there also are risks. Wal-Mart, faced with dozens of lawsuits, has to be careful what it says and what it promises because it may not be able to deliver.
“This is clearly by Wal-Mart’s own admission a damage-control tour,” said Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman at the AFL-CIO, whose United Food and Commercial Workers Union is trying to organize workers at some Wal-Mart stores.
“They are aware of a growing chorus of community leaders, environmentalists and religious leaders, who are saying that Wal-Mart’s values are not our values. And they need to respond to this,” Setzer said. Wal-Mart clearly has ramped up a public-relations campaign. In January, it bought full-page ads in more than 100 newspapers to spotlight its message that it provides opportunity for advancement and that its stores provide mainly full-time jobs that come with a broad benefits package.
Over the past year, it has hired big name public-relations companies, including Hill and Knowlton, to bolster its public-relations efforts.
At its annual shareholders’ meeting in June, Wal-Mart announced it was changing its policies on pay, promotions and diversity.