Behind Closed Doors at the Wal-Mart Media
April 9, 2005
By Don Elkins
AR. -- They wouldn't let broadcasters in the door at the Embassy
Suites in Rogers, Arkansas on Tuesday. However, through a combination
of complaints and my fortunate role as a writer for three local
publications, I got signed up at the last possible minute to attend
Wal-Mart's first annual media conference. The best word I can use
to describe the event?
A captive audience of print reporters listened to a retinue of
Wal-Mart executives, including CEO H. Lee Scott.
In attendance; Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times, Ron White
of the LA Times, representatives from the Chicago Tribune, Arkansas
Democrat Gazette, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
on and on and on.
So, what about it was questionable? Not Wal-Mart's attempt to go
right to the "decision makers" and "gatekeepers" in the international
media. Reading the headlines and copy from yesterday's session,
Mr. Scott did manage to get his message across, which simply was
that Wal-Mart critics have their story wrong, as he said, "dead
Scott explained his view that critics have an agenda to maintain
an unrealistic status quo intended to deny customers better prices.
He also explained how he thinks some critics expect Wal-Mart to
serve the function General Motors served in the post World War II
He defended low wages (he says the average worker in his company
earns $10 a hour - he pulled down slightly more than that himself,
in the millions) by saying the average worker at Wal-Mart only generated
in excess of $6 thousand dollars last year, whereas the average
worker at Microsoft generated $143 thousand for that company.
But, did the world's largest retailer actually go the right place
for its message of victimhood?
Those in attendance took note of Scott's adversarial tone and acidic
regard for the company's opponents.
They also analyzed, nit-picked and generally did the things business
journalists do. They might not actually have been the audience the
company could have used to its best advantage -- the less specialized
members of the media might have been a little more impressed.
One also has to ask about the "poor little me" attitude coming
from Wal-Mart during these sessions. If that was intended to improve
the company's image, it didn't work. Regardless of what Scott says
about wages, and regardless of what Wal-Mart USA President Mike
Duke told reporters about his company's dedication to making Wal-Mart
a better place to work for its employees, critics have made viable
complaints about wages. In many states, Wal-Mart continues to sit
at the top of lists of companies with employees on public assistance.
The company argues those numbers skew the truth -- it employs so
many people, that the percentage figure of those on public assistance
means the company has relatively fewer employees on the dole. That
does not, however, reduce those overall numbers, or the overall
dollar total of payments for assistance picked up by taxpayers.
On at least three separate occasions, reporters asked why Wal-Mart
didn't feel it could increase pay for employees.
Each time, the reply was an exercise in obfuscation. One reporter
asked why Wal-Mart couldn't reduce its 3 percent discount margin
by even a single percent, and put the resulting funds into improving
While he talked straight most of his time on the dais, Scott did
say one thing that came across in an incredibly disingenuous fashion.
He said he couldn't understand why thousands of people would get
in line for a job at Wal-Mart just to receive poorer pay and benefits
than they already get.
Of course, the truth is those thousands don't -- most have no benefits
and no wages, leaving all the power in the hands of the company,
and leaving the question of corporate responsibility and morality;
when a company becomes as large of Wal-Mart and employs so many
people, do the responsibilities of that company change?
Should its board of directors reasonably expect Americans to demand
After all, Americans have been used to better pay, better health
care and better treatment -- including the right to organize in
the workplace -- than people living in other countries.
Scott took pains to explain that we live in a "New World" with
a new paradigm where competition and efficiency rule. But, do those
"values" as Scott described them exclude humane or even preferential
treatment for American workers?
Again, the question becomes one of corporate morality or lack thereof
-- except in a different situation.
Lee Scott gets an A+ as a straight-up executive. So far, he values
a right-down-the-line approach to ethics on the board, he's managed
to raise the price of the company's stock from the mid-90s doldrums
near $10 a share to the company's usual mid-$50 a share range. He's
expanded the company, and it sits on the top of the Fortune 500
list for another year -- he's a superb businessman. But, with a
company the likes of which the world has never seen, an entire economic
segment unto itself, perhaps some "outside the envelope" thinking
needs to take place to make things right for the company, the shareholders
and those who have big problems with Wal-Mart, and I don't mean
just the UCFW.
Don Elkins hosts a progressive radio program in Northwest Arkansas.
Visit his website at www.arkansastonight.com.