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Wal-Mart Mounts P.R. Blitz of Critics

Wal-Mart used its formidable skills at execution Thursday to launch a major, coordinated public relations effort aimed at refuting its opponents.

BOSTON — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. used its formidable skills at execution Thursday to launch a major public relations effort aimed at refuting its opponents.

In full-page advertisements signed by chief executive officer H. Lee Scott that ran in more than 100 U.S. newspapers, the company said: “When special-interest groups and critics spread misinformation about Wal-Mart, the public deserves to hear the truth. In other words, everyone is entitled to their own opinions about our company, but they are not entitled to make up their own facts.”

The world’s biggest retailer, facing the largest-ever gender discrimination class-action case and a barrage of other litigation, has come under fire for being a low-wage employer that wreaks havoc on communities in which it opens stores. 

As the ads appeared yesterday, Scott and other top executives appeared on a blitz of television programs and fanned out for interviews in which they touted upbeat company statistics on wages, benefits and employment opportunities. Wal-Mart has previously publicized this data, but never with as much financial and executive clout.

In fact, Scott, who has spent his career shunning the spotlight, appeared on ABC’S “Good Morning America” as well as on CNBC, CNN and Fox News, and spoke with a handful of print outlets. “We’re not going to sit in Bentonville, [Ark.], hoping these urban myths go away,” Scott said on CNBC. “We’re going to get out and tell our story.”

Earlier, chief financial officer Tom Schoewe, speaking to a CNBC reporter, hinted at the resistance the retailer has faced in building new stores in cities such as Inglewood, Calif., which rejected a Wal-Mart in April. “We need to put stores and clubs all around the country, so the decision-makers need to know the facts, not lies,” he said.

The company also started a new Web site, walmartfacts.com, to support its contentions. “We want to make sure we are the ones controlling what is said about Wal-Mart,” said a  company spokeswoman Carol Schumacher. She would not disclose how much the retailer spent on the initiative, how long it took to plan or what is next.

“We don’t want to provide any of our plans because that would be tipping off too many people,” she said. “We can say that in 2005, we’re going to be aggressive in getting our messages out.”

Gary Ruffing, retail director with consultant BBK Ltd., estimated the ads alone rang in at about $1 million.

Even if Wal-Mart spent twice that for Thursday’s blitz, it’s still spare change for the $256 billion retailer. “It’s not as expensive as going to court and fighting legal battles and having people not understand what you stand for,” Ruffing said.

Not everyone was swayed by Wal-Mart’s appeal.

Greg Denier, spokesman for the Union of Food and Commercial Workers, said Wal-Mart’s push was “a defensive reaction using an ad campaign to cover the reality of Wal-Mart’s operations.” He said several of the retailer’s claims were misleading, including one that 74 percent of hourly associates work full-time. Wal-Mart defines full-time as 32, not 40, hours per week, he said.

Wal-Mart’s ads ran in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, as well as publications targeting minorities such as New York’s Spanish language El Diario/La Prensa.

“We really are trying to reach not only the general public, but also our associates because they have often asked us to step up and correct some of the messages out there,” Schumacher said.

Thursday morning, the retailer’s 1.2 million domestic associates received a letter from Scott. In the stores, Wal-Mart television played a broadcast of Scott explaining the company’s decision to defend its record.