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A Wal-Mart charm offensive opens HQ to a rare peek inside

By Christopher LeonardContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2005



BENTONVILLE, ARK.

Wal-Mart executive Mike Duke learned the hard way this week that journalists don't tend to applaud the subjects of their reportage.

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Pacing the stage Tuesday at Wal-Mart's first-ever reception for the print media, Mr. Duke seemed a bit out of place. He didn't wear a necktie, just a blazer and his Wal-Mart name tag. Many listeners wore suits. Duke was greeted with faint clapping when he took the stage. At Wal-Mart meetings, workers generally get to their feet and cheer several times.

Duke opened with a joke about a basketball game from the previous night and seemed knocked off balance when it fell flat. In an apparent effort to recover, he began to elaborate on the joke. After awhile, someone near the front of the crowd said loudly: "blah, blah, blah."

Finally, Wal-Mart's chief spokeswoman Mona Williams intervened. "They don't applaud. They don't play basketball," she called out to Duke with a laugh. "We'll keep working."

Such were the first interactions at an event that afforded the world with a rare glimpse inside one of the world's most influential corporations - one whose $285 billion in annual sales nearly match the gross domestic product of Saudi Arabia. It's also a sign of stepped up efforts by the company to burnish an image tainted by criticism over everything from labor practices to the retailer's impact on communities where it operates.

Wal-Mart opens an average of one store every day nationwide. But when it comes to public relations, Wal-Mart has room to expand.

Despite being the world's biggest retailer - and the largest employer in the US - the company has a staff of just 17 full-time public relations employees to handle press inquiries from around the globe. All other employees are barred from talking to the media without the media department's consent. That means each Wal-Mart spokesperson represents about 76,000 employees in the United States.

The low-key approach to public relations has allowed critics to define Wal-Mart for people that aren't familiar with it, says chief spokeswoman Williams.

So Wal-Mart is trying to change its tune. In January it launched a nationwide media campaign, buying pro-Wal-Mart advertisements in more than 100 newspapers and sending Chief Executive Officer H. Lee Scott to make the rounds on television talk shows.

This week's media reception at the Embassy Suites hotel in Rogers, near its Bentonville headquarters in northwest Arkansas, took Wal-Mart's image campaign to a new level. Reporters toured Wal-Mart's headquarters, stores, and a distribution center. They watched presentations by Mr. Scott, Duke and other senior officers and quizzed them afterward about the company's plans and business practices.

Always low prices ... often disputes

Wal-Mart did not roll out the red carpet out of simple Southern hospitality. Criticism of the company has affected its expansion plans in recent months. In April, citizens of Inglewood, Calif., voted down plans to build a Wal-Mart "supercenter" in the city that would have sold groceries and general merchandise. In February, developers scrapped plans to build a Wal-Mart in the New York City borough of Queens because of public opposition.

Earlier this month Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency to settle an illegal immigrant labor investigation. Federal officials raided 60 Wal-Mart stores in 2003 and arrested 245 alleged illegal immigrants hired by third-party contractors to clean Wal-Mart's floors.

Even Wal-Mart's media gala didn't escape a touch of controversy. An activist group traveled from Inglewood to hold a press conference in a ballroom just upstairs from the area Wal-Mart cordoned off for its event.

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