Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott compared his opponents to “guppies” today in an interview with the Associated Press. Scott said widespread criticism of his company is tantamount to “being nibbled to death by guppies.” The interview was part of the latest public relations assault by the giant retailer to try and accomplish what can only be described as an “extreme makeover.” Wal-Mart, which spends $2.6 million a day on advertising, stepped up its visibility efforts by launching a new website (www.walmartfacts.com) and buying full page ads in at least 100 papers across the nation, including some of the highest cost column inches in the country. All this to “set the record straight,” according to Wal-Mart. In a defensive, almost peevish campaign, Wal-Mart said the company is “working for everyone” but slammed those who dared to speak out against it as “special interest groups and critics who spread misinformation about Wal-Mart.” A letter from Scott added that “some of our critics are working only for themselves.” Scott said he was “drawing our own line in the sand” to tell Wal-Mart’s side of the story, because “our associates are tired of” people saying things about the company that just aren’t true. But Wal-Mart employees themselves have been speaking out using their own voice in the past couple of years, taking Wal-Mart to court for sexual discrimination, and for forcing them to work off the clock. Ironically, the associates Wal-Mart seeks to support are the very ones who have made their voices heard in courtrooms loud and clear. So who is Wal-Mart management really representing when they seek to tell us the “unfiltered truth?” It may be the stockholders, who are urging the company to maintain higher visibility in a time of intense negative publicity. And what does Wal-Mart use as an example of the “real facts” about its performance? Scott says “we plan to create more than 100,000 new jobs in the United States.” That statement is extremely inaccurate, because more than half of Wal-Mart’s “new” jobs are merely old jobs in new aprons, since the company “captures” sales from existing merchants, cutting a path of destruction in its wake. Wal-Mart also touts its health plan for workers — yet 55% of its workers don’t even take the plan, and many workers turn to state or federal programs for support. Studies in states like Georgia and West Virginia have revealed that Wal-Mart workers represent the top company whose children apply for public health insurance plans at taxpayers expense. A study last February by staff of the Congressional committee on Education found that the typical Wal-Mart supercenter costs the American taxpayer $420,750 per year. The study called Wal-Mart “the lowest common denominator in the treatment of working people.” None of Wal-Mart’s “real facts” have been independently verified by any auditors, and the company’s internal operations are far from transparent. The company wants to have it both ways: to keep public scrutiny of its internal operations nonexistent, while trumpeting its open door culture.
One thing is certain about Wal-Mart’s latest PR blitz: none of this would be happening if the opposition wasn’t scoring some very direct hits on the company’s public persona. The “good jobs, good neighbor” mantra has worn thin on communities, and Wal-Mart cannot buy virtuousness in hometown America, having ignored and bullied it for decades. The “real fact” about Wal-Mart is that it spent an astounding $966 million in advertising in 2004, a 43% increase over the previous year. Instead of good image, the past 18 months have been a public relations horrorshow. Lee Scott may be under pressure from investors to turn the corner on the bad press, but no amount of display ads is going to change the fact that Wal-Mart has roughed up hundreds of small communities, alienated many of its own workers, help cause the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and worsened our trade deficit with China. The mere shadow of a proposed Wal-Mart is enough to trigger the formation of another of what Scott might call a “guppie interest group.” In all liklihood, those guppies will continue to nibble Wal-Mart to death.