Monday, June 23, 2014

Fighting Back--the Right Way

Admittedly, we don't visit Wal-Mart's corporate blog very often.  But maybe we should; there's a recently-posted item that suggests the retailing giant may be taking a new approach with some of its critics and reminding us that "turning the corporate cheek" isn't always the best policy.

The item we reference is Wal-Mart's response to a recent op-ed in The New York Times by Timothy Egan.  As you might expect, Mr. Egan's column on Wal-Mart is a litany of the usual complaints about the company; workers earn starvation wages while senior executives rake in the big bucks; profits are excessive (and the Walton family is too rich), while rank-and-file associates have to rely on welfare to make ends meet.

Instead of ignoring the piece--or issuing some bland news release--Wal-Mart decided to do something a little different.  He critiqued Egan's piece much like an editor--or English instructor--pointing out factual errors, flawed sourcing and obvious distortions, all highlighted in red.

The "fact check" was the work of David Tovar, the company's vice-president for corporate communications.  "Tim--thanks for sharing your first draft," Tovar scrawls across the top of his review. "Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published.  Hope this helps."

For his clever takedown of the Grey Lady, we'd say Mr. Tovar deserves a bonus or a raise, giving Egan more fodder for a future column.  But we also hope that David Tovar's colleagues in the corporate communications and public relations business are paying attention.  Despite that overwhelming urge to ignore critics, or be "helpful" by gently pointing out the company's side of the story, there are occasions when media snarks and critics deserve a little slap across the face.  And, if you can do it with a little style and flair (like Mr. Tovar), so much the better.

Clearly, Mr. Egan's column was an opinion piece, but it's equally obvious that he long ago abandoned any notion of fairness or objectivity towards Wal-Mart.  Indeed, we've always marveled that Sam Walton's big box chain has become the epitome of corporate exploitation and greed while competitors (helloooo....Target) get off scot-free.  Maybe it's because most of the political donations by Wal-Mart execs have gone to Republicans (or so we're told), while much of Target's political money finds its way to Democrats.  If Egan made a trip to Target, he probably find many of the same problems that are supposedly rampant at Wal-Mart.  But in the alternative universe of The New York Times editorial section, there is room for just one evil retailer, and that honor is reserved for the company in Bentonville, Arkansas.

One final thought: had we been in Mr. Tovar's position, there would be a little addendum to our critique, something along the lines of "Hey Tim: at least we have a business model that works."  At last report, Wal-Mart was both the largest employer and tax payer in America, and its economic muscle to force lower prices amounts to a 6.5% boost in household income for the nation's poorest families.   And by the way, that statistic comes from the liberal economist Jason Furman, appointed last year as Chairman of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.  Hardly a member of the Vast Right Wing conspiracy.

As for The New York Times Company, not long ago it was begging Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim for a loan.  While digital circulations are on the upswing, the company has been bleeding red ink for years, thanks to such savvy moves as buying the Boston Globe for a cool $1 billion in the early 90s, then unloading it last year, at a fire-sale price of only $70 million.        



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