Wal-Mart has hired Richard Edelman’s firm to lead the giant retailer’s public relations response to the intensifying debate over Wal-Mart’s values and practices. This is a wonderful opportunity for Edelman and those who work in his firm to put into practice Edelman’s own values about the responsibilities of public relations professionals in our complex 21st century. According to an Edelman post in November 2004, , PR firms should avoid the ‘anything goes’ standard of lawyers of claiming that since all deserve representation, firms can take on any client regardless of that client’s character and values. He believes PR firms should have a higher standard on who are represented and what is said on their behalf. In addition, he believes in full transparency of work methods. “It is more than what you say. It is how you say it that matters.” Finally, Edelman writes of how important it is for PR firms to have a seat in the highest councils of companies in order to ensure that these high principles are adopted and applied.
His firm now has an extraordinay chance to live these values. As we know, Wal-Mart increasingly means controversy in a manner not unlike Iraq or tax cuts or Supreme Court nominees. What the Wal-Mart brand stands for — every day low prices, low wages, employees with benefits, government subsidy of employees without sufficient benefits,local business erosion, keeping inflation low — is subject to many claims.
Edelman must have decided that Wal-Mart was a worthy client deserving of the very best in PR help – that is, that Wal-Mart met his first principled test on ‘whom to represent’. Now, on a daily basis, those who are working on the Wal-Mart account have the chance to apply the rule on what is said and how it is said.
One suggestion: In choosing how to counter various anti-Wal-Mart assertions, challenge Wal-Mart’s highest executives to adopt a policy of acknowledging what is reasonable in those claims.
For example, avoid limiting yourself to writing only this on the Wal-Mart website:
“As of today, 620,000 associates have signed up for health insurance coverage in a Wal-Mart sponsored plan.”
Why not present this information about the 620,000 associates while also explaining how many of them went beyond signing up for benefits to actually receiving them. Then note that hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart associates do not have health insurance. Go on to explain Wal-Mart’s position regarding associate health insurance as well as government subsidy. Provide readers of the website an understanding of Wal-Mart’s objectives in this area and what the company is doing to pursue these objectives. For example, in choosing how to say what steps Wal-Mart is taking, include the Susan Chambers’ memo that has recently been completed regarding an approach to benefits at Wal-Mart being recommended to Wal-Mart’s Board of Directors.
It is important and undertandable that a PR firm hired by Wal-Mart should present Wal-Mart’s side of the story. It is also important — both for Wal-Mart and for Richard Edelman – to insure that the public debate and discussion of the challenges Wal-Mart faces are conducted with high standards that Edelman would have all in the PR field apply. Bending over backwards to insure that Wal-Mart’s side of the story is presented in a manner that encourages real debate, real discussion and real problem-solving will be the highest, best testimony to Edelman and his firm.
Let’s wish him and his firm well as they move to the higher ground.