From Wal-Mart’s perspective, the best news is managed news. Wal-Mart loves news that comes out of a can. Everything is carefully scripted, so that what the company calls “real facts” can emerge in a controlled environment. In their latest effort to manage the news, Wal-Mart is having a media fest in its homebase, inviting over 100 reporters to travel to Bentonville, Arkansas to hear the top brass at Wal-Mart. But the company is warning reporters in advance that “there will be no opportunities for individual interviews.” In the new open regime, Wal-Mart is now making its top executives available for these staged events, almost like the Chinese parade their top leadership. Here’s the partial text of the invitation sent to a select list of reporters: “As part of our continuing efforts to ensure you have accurate information on Wal-Mart, we would like to extend a special invitation for you to join us in Northwest Arkansas on April 5 and 6 for our first-ever Media Conference. Our program will feature presentations by our CEO Lee Scott; CFO Tom Schoewe, the President of Wal-Mart Stores Mike Duke; as well as other Wal-Mart executives from our operations, merchandising and administrative divisions. Each presentation will be followed by a question and answer session. Additionally, attendees will be able to choose from a series of tours, each hosted by a Wal-Mart executive, to facilities like our local distribution center, our RFID lab and the home office. A complete agenda and tour outline is enclosed for your review. We also need to tell you what our Media Conference will not include. There will be no opportunities for individual interviews with our executives before, during or after the Media Conference. With more than 100 guests from across the country expected, we would not be able to accommodate all interviews. The only fairness principle we can apply is to decline all requests in advance. While we know newsroom budgets are tight, this is an unprecedented opportunity to come hear our top executives share their views of our company, our business and our industry in a format specifically designed for journalists. We hope you will join us for this special event…Please note that invitations are non-transferable without prior approval from Wal-Mart. Due to space constraints, we will not be able to add people to the invitee list. The event will not be Web cast. We have set aside a group of rooms at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Rogers, Arkansas, at a special rate of US$139 plus taxes for the night of April 5th. (An even smaller number of rooms have been reserved for those wishing to arrive on the 4th.) These rooms will be available until our block sells out…The closest airport is Northwest Arkansas Regional airport (XNA). It is
served by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways. Some people choose to fly into Tulsa International airport (TUL) because fares can be less expensive…For those needing to double-check organizational ethics policies, Wal-Mart will only be providing dinner on the 5th, lunch on the 6th and transportation to/from the tours. All other expenses would be the responsibility of the attendee. If you need to pay for your meals, that option will be available and explained in your attendance confirmation packet. If you have specific questions, Gus Whitcomb has been designated as our liaison for this event. You can reach him by calling 479.273.4314 and pressing option 3 or via email at [email protected] We look forward to welcoming you to Wal-Mart and Northwest Arkansas. Sincerely, Mona Williams, Vice President, Corporate Communications.”
Do you suppose that any reporter who brings up the subject of illegal workers, or discrimination against the disabled will get a second invitation? Is it kosher to ask Lee Scott about his company’s recent defeats in many towns across the country? Is this event likely to happen more than once every 43 years? Will GusWhitcomb let Sprawl-Busters attend as a media representative? These are all questions that will not be asked during the Q&A. Over the years, Wal-Mart has spent a considerable amount of money monitoring the media. Former Wal-Mart Vice President Don Shinkle wrote a story in Public Relations Quarterly in which he boasted that Wal-Mart had a database that tracked favorable and unfavorable stories by media market. “We also know, through this database,” Shinkle wrote, “which reporters are more balanced, and which ones need special stroking based on previous reporting.” This intricate tracking system allowed Wal-Mart to “know if our negative press is coming from a ruling on a legal case or on a new market entry. We know if it comes from a mistake in something we said.” The purpose of all this tracking? To ensure that “in the court of public opinion” the public will “get the whole story.” They’ll be a whole lot of strokin’ going on in Bentonville on April 5th.