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Business Week reports on a group of executives from Edelman Public Relations who run a kind of “War Room” at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, that “acts as the nerve center of the world's largest retailer's campaign to soften its public face” and to respond to the negative publicity campaigns mounted against the company. “Backed by Wal-Mart's own publicity staff, the team responds within hours to any new blast of criticism,” Business Week writes.

This charm offensive comes as CEO Lee Scott tries to deal with the fact that so much negative publicity seems to have undercut the company’s growth efforts, which have slowed of late. Scott says that such moves aren’t necessary in good times of high growth, especially because bad public relations added to slowed growth can hurt the company’s value on the stock market.

“Maybe not all of our critics wish us harm,” Scott tells the magazine. “Maybe some would like us to be a better company and do things differently. So you start reaching out...trying to understand what is it about us that causes them to have this concern. How much of it is legitimate? How much of it is misinformation? What is it that we need to change? What is it we can't [change] that we will hopefully be able to communicate?”
KC's View:
You can’t deny that Wal-Mart is trying to turn over a new leaf in a number of areas, even as it deals with real problems such as accusations that it supports foreign sweatshops and engages in gender discrimination.

Some will say that it is all flash and no sizzle. We don’t think that’s true.

Some will say that the company is only doing this because the negative publicity is taking a toll, and that it would never do these things if it were rolling along without any problems. Which may be true…which only makes Wal-Mart like a lot of other companies. Just a lot bigger.

There are some who already are saying that Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita actually have been positive for Wal-Mart because they have allowed the company to opportunistically show off its compassionate side. Again, that may be true…but that doesn’t diminish the high level of compassion and competence (neither of which was much in evidence on the part of government officials) that it has brought to relief efforts.

We think that the one thing that Wal-Mart has to avoid doing is creating the appearance that it is exploiting these opportunities for its own gain. Business Week notes that the PR team worked overtime to make sure that the company and its associates got credit where it was due.

That can be a bit of a tightrope to walk. Getting credit is fine. Just don’t appear to exploit the situation.