Economy

You Wont Believe How HUGE Walmart's Public Relations Machine Is

As Americans across the country lined up in the darkness for Black Friday sales two weeks ago, scores of activists armed with chants, slogans, signs, and winter gear gathered on the sidelines in opposition. 

Reliably, every year around the time of the nation’s biggest shopping day, protests highlighting the meager wages and poor benefits for millions of Big Retail employees make headlines—and rightly so: Black Friday savings can often overshadow serious threats to employee wellbeing. 

But this year, an especially vocal sector of Black Friday protests came from Walmart workers and their supporters, who staged nationwide demonstrations. In some cases, striking workers went so far as to stage sit-ins in the aisles of their own stores. 

It should come as no surprise that Walmart would draw some of the most virulent dissenting voices. As we have reported, while the company’s six heirs are richer than 42% of Americans combined, and though it could have raised wages and benefits for its non-supervisory employees by more that $2,000 without affecting prices, an average hourly wage there is $8.81—barely up from the $7.92 employees were paid in 2003. This foots an estimated $6.2 billion annual bill to American taxpayers saddled with subsidizing low pay and short benefits. All the while, the company dodges about $1 billion in federal taxes annually and is scheming to save billions more. 

But dodging taxes and trapping employees in vicious cycles of poverty can only go so far. As Cantare Davunt, a Customer Service Manager at a Minnesota Walmart, wrote in a protest explainer for this site: “I am on strike today because I believe that if I don’t stand up and fight to change Walmart […] it’s only going to get harder and harder for college students and the next generation to live a life with the level of dignity you’d expect of the developed world.” 

As protesters lined up at thousands of Walmart stores across the country, the company’s public relations and social media teams were hard at work countering the dissenting voices that went full-force last week.

On Twitter, with close to ten different handles, Walmart offers up feel-good quotes with photos of smiling store employees from across the country, most singing the praises of the company’s internal growth opportunities and efforts to better serve employees. Its official Facebook page is a strange amalgam of voices, a veritable message board for fans and detractors, with the page’s administrators deftly trying to navigate between the two. 

But while a strong social media presence is a predictable move (or, at least, aspiration) for a large corporation constantly struggling with its public image, last week saw Walmart taking a strange, more clandestine approach to selling a positive image.  

Buried between news blurbs and analysis on Politico’s vastly influential Playbook newsletter, a “message from Walmart” informed readers that “with over 400 promotions every day, education benefits, 401K plans and more, Walmart provides opportunity to our nearly 1.3 million associates.” The message provided a link to TheRealWalmart.com, nudging the curious to read more about the company’s benefit plans and opportunities. It was a slick display of PR power, complete with matching formatting in the style of the Playbook.

All this points to a developing marketing strategy that seeks to engage with everyday customers and paint a tangible, human face on one of the world’s largest corporations. According to an interview with Walmart’s Senior Director of Digital Communications, Chad Mitchell, that’s just what the company is seeking to accomplish. Mitchell disclosed that in 2014, the company was prioritizing “paid media” in an effort to create “more engaging and compelling content” that will focus on “better storytelling through the inclusion of more conversational tools, social sharing and possibly a blog.” 

“The Real Walmart” campaign was launched in 2013 as a life line for a company whose image is constantly in the choppy waters of employee protests, corporate financial schemes, and an ever-growing quiver of attacks from consumer advocate public voices and media outlets. At the time of the campaign’s launch, Bill Simon, the head of Walmart U.S. division hoped “The Real Walmart” would correct persisting misconceptions and “talk directly to the public and tell them the whole story.” 

But detractors were quick to respond and debunk some of the claims laid out in the sing-song-y, political style video spots, featuring the success stories of star employees, uplifting statistics about internal growth opportunities, and messages from “real shoppers.” 

“Opportunity: That’s the Real Walmart,” says one of the adds, adding, “Over 75 percent of store management started as hourly associates.” But internal growth, and the jump from eking out minimum wage to a salaried managerial position, faces systemic limits, according to leaked internal documents. And as far as touting bonuses when a particular store does well, the $100-300 quarterly boosts aren’t necessarily going to drag someone out of a deep hole perpetuated by low pay and no benefits. 

One of the most striking features of the “Real Walmart” campaign is its failure to address the plethora of reasons thousands of employees across the country were fed up enough to go on strike during Black Friday. And that it popped up conveniently around the same time protests were occurring is likely anything but coincidence. Walmart’s PR operation sets out to airbrush these concerns with flashy video spots and low-key ad integration, and push the American success story it sees itself embodying. 

But at a time when our national concern with finding the best Black Friday steal seems to eclipse securing decent wages and benefits for one of the nation’s biggest employers, it’s high time for a priority check. You could join the fight over that last pair of speakers, or you could listen to Walmart workers and join their fight instead.