the audit

Sympathy for the Walmart flack

How the PR-afflicted colossus pushes its "jobs" narrative on a credulous press
July 24, 2013

On some level you have to feel a little bad for the Walmart flack.

You try polishing the image of an eyesore-producing, taxpayer-subsidy-guzzling, shoddy-goods-peddling, union-busting, $260 billion cutthroat monopsonist.

On the other hand, the company has quite a few PR successes, particularly below the national-media radar.

Walmart is in a pitched PR battle right now to build six smaller stores in Washington, DC. The District council passed an ordinance a couple of weeks ago that forces non-union big-box retailers to pay its employees at least $12.50 an hour. Walmart, in response, is threatening to abandon its plan to enter the District unless the law is vetoed or rescinded. A reminder—this is $12.50 an hour in the District of Columbia, not rural Kansas.

Walmart is busy pushing the jobs angle, which is constantly misused by companies in development squabbles to play municipalities off each other or to just snooker the local rubes in office. It says that if it fails to open its stores there, DC will lose out on the 1,800 jobs it would have brought.

Problem is, retail is a zero-sum game at best. A new store doesn’t create purchasing power; it redistributes it from elsewhere. (That’s particularly so since the US has more than triple the retail space per capita as any other country. DC is under-retailed by American standards, having roughly the same amount shop space per resident as the second-most retail-saturated country, the UK.)

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Walmart’s PR push on jobs goes beyond abstract numbers. A perusal through Factiva shows lots of ribbon-cutting stories, pieces about Walmart’s hiring centers, and soft-focus manager walk-throughs. None of them are enterprise stories, to put it kindly.

The store-manager-started-out-as-cashier pitch is particularly gobbled up by the press (as is Walmart’s softening-up potential community-group opposition with cash, as you can see in this rather sad PR video from an opening). Here’s a sampler of stories from the last month or so to give you a flavor of how a mega PR machine seeps into the media stream.

Here’s a glowing profile in the Ocala Star-Banner on July 16:

As a single mom, she began work as a cashier at the 19th Avenue Road Walmart in 2000. Within six months she had been promoted to a new level. In the next 13 years she worked her way up through the myriad administrative levels, from hourly supervisor to salaried manager.

The Benicia (California) Patch on July 17:

New Store, New Jobs

The new store employs up to 95 full- and part-time associates. The first Walmart Neighborhood Market opened in 1998, and today there are approximately 250 Walmart Neighborhood Market stores nationwide.

Store manager Vicky Rafael began her Walmart career in 2000 as a cashier.

The Sunbury, Pennsylvania, Daily Item on July 15:

Former part-time cashier now leads seven Wal Mart stores

The Vallejo Times Herald on July 3:

“I started at the old Vallejo Walmart in 2001 as a cashier, then I was transferred to the Napa store, then to the Fairfield store, where I became assistant manager.”

Rafael said she spent time climbing the corporate ladder in the American Canyon Walmart Supercenter before returning to Vallejo.

“Now, I have a store of my own, in my own town,” she said. “This company has been so good to me in the 13 years I’ve been with them. It’s so much fun. It’s like creating a new family.”

The Fall River, Massachusetts Herald News in June:

This is home to him, Disla said. He is 34. A few summers on a landscape crew while growing up near Boston made him appreciate Walmart when he joined the company right after college.

“I’ve been with the company for 15 years,” he said. “I started right after college and stayed.

“It is a family atmosphere. You can grow up with this company.”

Never underestimate an overworked reporter’s appetite for a Horatio Alger story with a contrarian storyline presented on a silver platter by well-funded PR folks who outnumber him four-to-one.

This is not to say that flack-generated stories are wrong per se, just that it’s seriously problematic when the results read more like press releases than news stories—particularly when the narrative obscures complicated issues.

The PR counter-narrative here is, “See, low-paying Walmart jobs aren’t dead ends: They’re new starts!”

But there are probably a hundred or two hundred workers for every one of those big successes—far more of them are making $8 or $9 an hour than manager salaries—while their (relatively) well-paid store managers who manipulate their hours to maximize store profits at the expense of their employees’ non-work lives get credulously profiled by the local newspaper. Numerically, there are only so many workers who can ascend beyond the poverty wage rank at Walmart. And so the press focus—or at least some of the focus—should be on them.

It’s worth noting what happens when someone else shows up to push back on the Walmart-created narrative. Here’s the Woodland, California Daily Democrat last month at a ribbon cutting:

“We are very excited,” said Store Manager Ed Medina, a 10-year Wal-Mart worker. “Finally all the craziness is done and now we’re taking care of all our customers — that’s what we’re good at.”

Well, maybe not all the craziness.

Just after 4 p.m. Wednesday a group of about 10 protesters convened at the store’s front entrance with signs such as “Wal-Mart: Always low pay,” “Boycott Wal-Mart” and “Fair Pay.” The protest was organized by Occupy Woodland’s Steven Payan…

“Small businesses close, wages drop, and more county services are needed because most of the employees are on Medi-Cal or use emergency room services,” he said. “Because wages are so low most have to augment with food stamps.”

It’s too bad that it takes a handful of Occupy protestors to get newspapers to dilute the pure PR wins they’re giving Walmart.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.