I've watched the reputational wanderings of Wal-Mart recently with great interest. Today's Wall-Street Journal's page one feature ("Behind the Scenes, PR Firm Remakes Wal-Mart's Image") raises several questions for those of us entrusted with guiding a company's reputation.
Much has been writtten, of course, on the fake-blogging missteps in Edelman's clumsy "Wal-Marting Across America" adventure, where a couple began a happy blog about their adventure in an RV driving across the country, overnighting in Wal-Mart parking lots along the way -- without disclosing that they were on Wal-mart's payroll. The predictable uproar on the blogosphere led to an abrupt end to the campaign and a well-received apology on Richard Edelman's personal blog. He followed that up by announcing a global audit of Edelman practices and by clearly stating Edelman's rules of conduct regarding transparency. Nice recovery, Edelman.
Today's WSJ piece touches on but fails to fully address another troubling development in the field of corporate reputation management: the use of political campaign tactics that treat the company as candidate and consumers as the voting public.
"This is not a public relations campaign," says Michael Deaver, a former chief of staff for President Reagan who is now helping to oversee the Wal-Mart account as an Edelman vice chairman."It's a win-or-lose campaign. And if you've been involved in a presidential campaign, that's the way you look at things." ... In their "Candidate Wal-Mart" pitch, Messrs. Dach and Deaver of Edelman described a campaign with all the trappings of a U.S. presidential bid. A war room of publicists would respond quickly to attacks or adverse news. Operatives would be assigned to drum up popular support for Wal-Mart via Internet blogs and grass-roots initiatives. Skeptical outside groups, such as environmentalists, would be recruited to team up with Wal-Mart. Edelman won and quickly put its plan into practice, with three dozen staffers working on the account in Washington, D.C., and Bentonville.
No argument about the need for quick responses to emerging issues. And the courting of adversarial groups through direct and sincere engagement is just fundamentally sound PR.
But other aspects of political campaigning don't translate as well into the new dynamic where consumer conversations determine the value of brands. Fake grass roots campaigns ("astro-turfing") are a clear violation of the new consumer ethic, as demonstrated so clearly in the Wal-Marting case. Same for the wholesale enlistment of blogger mercenaries paid to write happy thoughts. There's more to be lost than to be gained here.
Even more fundamentally is the troubling notion that a company's external values can and should be determined by polling. Companies that are losing their way in the marketplace increasingly are turning to focus groups to tell them what to stand for. It's maddening that corporate executives fall for this stuff when pitched by a high-priced agency. At the risk of stating the obvious (for any well-intentioned PR pro), repeat after me: "Companies must determine their long-term values from within. Ask - 'What is really going to distinguish my company and its brand?' 'What do we stand for?' Once you know the answer, communicate it clearly to your employees and make sure it's real. Aspirational is fine, but it has to be rooted in the way you act today. Then, and only then, conduct focus groups to your heart's content to find the best way to communicate those values to the marketplace."
Okay, I feel better now.
Another personal observation: Wal-Mart started out as a regional success story, springing from its roots in Arkansas and Missouri, bringing low prices, quality products and a commitment to customer satisfaction that revolutionized the buying experience for millions of small-town customers who had no other good alternatives. Wal-Mart was greatly loved, and it grew and prospered. When I worked as a stock boy at the local Wal-Mart during my college years, the company was adding 50 new stores a year. Its stock was splitting every few years and since employees at all levels were encouraged to participate in the stock-match savings program, we all were rewarded handsomely for our modest investments.
Somewhere along the line Wal-Mart outgrew its lovableness and became a behemoth to be feared and loathed. Anti-Wal-Marting became a cottage industry: see Wal-Mart Watch, Wake Up Wal-mart and Hel*Mart.
Wal-Mart can't go back to being a lovable regional family-based retailer; it is now the world's largest corporation. But it is by no means certain that Edelman's campaign-style tactics are a smart move either. Might I humbly suggest the company look deep within itself, find its values and renew its commitment to those values -- and then enlist the help of the PR pros to tell its story?
And, finally, what other companies are riding successful growth into behemoth status? How soon will suddenly mistake-prone Toyota, for example, lose its Teflon coating and become the next stumbling giant?
-- Jon Harmon