BOSTON — In a major shift in corporate protocol, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is giving journalists limited access to the company and its leadership during a two-day conference starting Tuesday that is planned with the rigor of a military maneuver.
The gathering is part of a broader acknowledgment that the media is another of the company’s “stakeholders,” much like Wall Street analysts, who attend a similar annual conference, said Jay Allen, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president, corporate affairs. Allen said his only regret was that he “wished the company had done this sooner, but all things have their natural cycle.”
The conference is open to journalists on Wal-Mart’s terms: No photography or individual interviews permitted, reporters’ belongings are subject to searches and only 20 minutes are allotted for questions after each executive presentation.
Detractors of the world’s largest retailer have effectively used the courts, local lawmakers and the media to attack Wal-Mart’s employment policies and to try to slow its expansion in the U.S. The company has been involved in battles in Los Angeles and New York over its attempts to open stores.
In addition, Wal-Mart has been challenged by scandals involving illegal immigrant cleaning crews hired by company contractors and internal ethics probes of top company officers, including former vice chairman Thomas Coughlin, who last month was ousted from the board. Wal-Mart, which had more than $285 billion in net sales for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, also is facing the largest-ever class-action gender discrimination lawsuit on behalf of more than one million current and former female employees.
“Wal-Mart has more problems with the media than they do with consumers, so I think it’s wise to go out and confront the group that has the greater negative impression,” said Britt Beemer, founder of Charleston, S.C.-based marketing firm America’s Research Group.
Eli Portnoy, principal of Orlando, Fla.-based branding consultant The Portnoy Group, said the conference could backfire.
“If it’s window dressing, a lot of hot air and double-talk answers but nothing substantive, I think it could cause more harm than good,” he said. “I suspect they will give a little, but not much….Their business philosophy and their success has been driven by how close to the pocket they keep their business.”
Wal-Mart president and chief executive officer H. Lee Scott, who is spearheading an effort to improve the company’s reputation, will give the keynote address.
Wal-Mart’s campaign “to tell its story” is a dramatic overture for a company whose founder, Sam Walton, shunned the press. The company did not establish a media relations unit until 1989. The current strategy kicked into high gear this year with a blitz of newspaper ads defending the company’s wages and benefits. The retailer also launched a Web site, walmartfacts.com.
“We’re not doing this because of a negative headline or someone doesn’t like us,” Allen said. “All we’re doing in this external area is tied to our growth. It’s not inconsistent with having to have world-class logistics systems or world-class information technology to keep growing. We have to be world-class in this area — in p.r. and in government and in legal — to grow.”
More than 100 publications were invited to the conference and about half plan to attend, said Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb. The conference is to be at a hotel in Rogers, Ark., about 5 miles from Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville. Reporters were given a choice of touring the company’s headquarters, distribution center, radio frequency identification lab or any of its domestic store formats. The RFID and home office tours are most popular, Whitcomb said.