A Look Behind the Wal-Mart PR Machine

By Kris Hudson 
First published by The Wall St. Journal, December 7, 2006

Over the last year, Lee Scott has appeared on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show, talked about pro-environment policies and given speeches that repeatedly state his organization’s devotion to “working families.”

If Mr. Scott, the chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., seems like he’s running for office, it’s no accident. For the last 15 months, the Edelman public-relations firm, led by seasoned political operatives, has been directing a campaign it calls “Candidate Wal-Mart.” The goal: Rescue the battered image of the world’s largest retailer.

Edelman’s bipartisan team has been behind the curtain during Wal-Mart’s most visible recent initiatives — and some of its public stumbles. When Wal-Mart decided to sell an array of generic drugs for $4 a prescription, Edelman orchestrated a 49-state rollout, lining up local dignitaries in 79 places for publicity events. The PR giant also organized a grass-roots group called Working Families for Wal-Mart. But it had to scramble when the leader it helped recruit, Andrew Young, made derogatory comments about ethnic shopkeepers and was forced to resign.

Wal-Mart badly needs a boost. Its sales growth has waned in recent years and an effort to reach out to higher-earning shoppers has sputtered, partly because of the company’s beleaguered image. Sales at stores open more than a year fell 0.1% in the four weeks ending Nov. 24 — only the second monthly drop in 27 years. This year Wal-Mart scaled back expansion plans amid pressure from investors and political opposition in New York, Massachusetts, California and elsewhere.

As Edelman and Wal-Mart see it, image is crucial for drawing customers, smoothing the way for new stores in urban areas and beating back legislation that would raise costs. “This is not a public-relations campaign,” says Michael Deaver, a former chief of staff for President Reagan who is now helping to oversee the Wal-Mart account as an Edelman vice chairman. “It’s a win-or-lose campaign. And if you’ve been involved in a presidential campaign, that’s the way you look at things.”

Leslie Dach, a former adviser to Democratic politicians, led the campaign’s first year as an Edelman vice chairman. Now Mr. Dach is a Wal-Marter in full: In July, the retailer hired him as an executive vice president for communications and government relations, reporting directly to Mr. Scott, the CEO.

For years Wal-Mart did little to promote itself as a positive social force, believing its low prices would speak for themselves. But as it mushroomed to become one of the world’s biggest companies — with 6,700 stores and $312 billion in sales last year — it increasingly felt the sting of public criticism and pressure to fight back.

The pressure grew last year when unions started two organizations to hammer Wal-Mart: the Service Employees International Union’s Wal-Mart Watch and WakeUpWalMart.com, funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. At Wal-Mart’s annual meeting on June 3, 2005, Mr. Scott said: “Your company is the focus of one of the most well-organized and well-financed corporate campaigns in history…A coalition of unions and others are spending over $25 million this year alone to try to do damage to this company.”

A few weeks later, on June 28, two dozen Wal-Mart executives sat behind tables at a community-college conference center in Bentonville, Ark., Wal-Mart’s hometown. They heard pitches from three PR firms chosen as finalists — Edelman, APCO Worldwide and DCI Group.

War Room of Publicists 
In their “Candidate Wal-Mart” pitch, Messrs. Dach and Deaver of Edelman described a campaign with all the trappings of a U.S. presidential bid. A war room of publicists would respond quickly to attacks or adverse news. Operatives would be assigned to drum up popular support for Wal-Mart via Internet blogs and grass-roots initiatives. Skeptical outside groups, such as environmentalists, would be recruited to team up with Wal-Mart. Edelman won and quickly put its plan into practice, with three dozen staffers working on the account in Washington, D.C., and Bentonville.

Wal-Mart had been mulling the $4-per-prescription program before Edelman’s arrival, but the firm saw it as a chance to promote Wal-Mart as a catalyst for health-care change. In late September, Wal-Mart executives gathered with Florida officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, to announce the program’s introduction in the Tampa area. That generated national coverage, despite Wal-Mart’s initial statements that it wouldn’t expand the program beyond Tampa until 2007. Then the company rolled it out in rapid-fire succession to 48 other states, declaring that the low-cost pills were so popular it didn’t want to keep people waiting.

The acceleration of the program earned new national coverage, but even more important were local news outlets. The 79 news conferences arranged by Edelman across the country helped the effort win notices from The Dallas Morning News, Vermont ‘s Burlington Free Press and others.

Privately held Edelman is the largest U.S. public relations firm with 2005 revenue of $254 million and clients such as Microsoft Corp. and Pfizer Inc. (Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has also been a client.) Both Wal-Mart and Edelman decline to disclose Edelman’s fee, but outside estimates put it in the millions of dollars annually.

Mr. Dach, a slightly built 52-year-old, was born and raised in the New York City borough of Queens, son of a homemaker and a small-business owner in Manhattan ‘s garment district. He studied neurobiology at Yale but quickly was drawn to politics, working on the advance teams of Sen. Edward Kennedy and President Carter during their 1980 presidential bids.

He went on to play prominent advisory roles for Democrats in five of the next six presidential campaigns. He prepared Al Gore for debates in 2000 and handled publicity for Democratic efforts in 2004 to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot in several states. In between campaigns, he spent 17 years at Edelman advising clients such as a Fujifilm Corp. division and the Nature Conservancy.

Mr. Dach believes his experience trouble-shooting for political candidates can be applied to the corporate world. “Every crisis is an opportunity,” he said in a recent interview. “The American people understand imperfection. But what they want to see is a company taking responsibility and then moving forward.”

Soon after getting hired by Wal-Mart, Edelman found an opening. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart rushed to reopen its stores and speed supplies to the storm-damaged areas. Edelman helped Wal-Mart get coverage for its efforts and spotlighted Jason Jackson, the retailer’s emergency-planning director. Mr. Jackson gave interviews, spoke on a conference call with reporters and gave some a peek into his command center for tracking weather and routing supplies.

After the storm, evacuees and local officials proclaimed in the news that Wal-Mart had outhustled the federal government. Also, Wal-Mart quickly made a $15 million donation to the hurricane-relief fund organized by former Presidents Clinton and Bush. The two ex-presidents praised Wal-Mart’s generosity.

Another early Edelman initiative was Working Families for Wal-Mart, the grass-roots organization. The idea was to allow Wal-Mart’s defenders to strike back against critics without requiring the company’s own PR staff to enter the fray. Wal-Mart provided the group’s funding and Edelman staffed it.

Edelman executive Greg St. Claire played a leading role in recruiting Mr. Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as the group’s chairman, according to people who spoke with Mr. St. Claire. They say Mr. St. Claire told colleagues how Mr. Young had praised Wal-Mart in public comments. Wal-Mart says its diversity department came up with the idea of bringing in Mr. Young. Mr. St. Claire declined to comment and Mr. Young’s office didn’t return phone messages.

Others recruited by Edelman for the group’s 14-member steering committee include Wheelchair Foundation vice president Chris Lewis, the son of entertainer Jerry Lewis, and singer Pat Boone. In its first year, Working Families for Wal-Mart reports amassing 150,000 supporters and assembling steering committees of local dignitaries in six states.

Yet the Working Families group has produced some of Edelman’s worst fumbles, too. Union-backed Wal-Mart Watch swooped in to claim the workingfamiliesforwalmart.com Web address, and posted statements there mocking the company-backed group as artificial. In August of this year, Mr. Young raised a stir when he told an African-American newspaper in California that Jewish, Korean and Arab shopkeepers overcharged inner-city African-Americans for stale food. He had been asked about Wal-Mart’s impact on mom-and-pop businesses. Mr. Young apologized and resigned from Working Families for Wal-Mart.

Faux Pas
In October, bloggers and mainstream media criticized Working Families for Wal-Mart for not disclosing the full identities of two people — one the sister of Edelman’s Mr. St. Claire — whom it enlisted to write a pro-company blog. The two drove an RV around the country and posted happy accounts of the Wal-Mart customers and employees they encountered. Edelman’s chief executive, Richard Edelman, apologized on his own blog for the lack of disclosure.

The faux pas had union groups crowing. “Edelman stumbled badly on the Wal-Mart account, and the fake-blog episode is fast becoming a case study on the importance of PR transparency,” said Wal-Mart Watch spokesman Nu Wexler.

In its pitch for the account, Edelman had warned Wal-Mart that Google results for a “Wal-Mart” search yielded mostly unflattering material, potentially overshadowing the company’s own sites. Edelman sought to balance that equation by funneling positive information about Wal-Mart to bloggers. For example, news that 24,500 people applied for 325 jobs at a new Wal-Mart outside of Chicago made its way onto some blogs.

Edelman has also tried to help Wal-Mart gain some control over the issue of health care. In October 2005, Wal-Mart Watch distributed an internal Wal-Mart document detailing strategies for cutting health-benefit costs by discouraging unhealthy job applicants. In January, Maryland enacted a law targeting Wal-Mart that required large employers to spend certain amounts on health-care benefits for workers in the state. The law spurred similar bills prompted by labor groups in more than two dozen states.

Mr. Dach pushed Mr. Scott to discuss health in a February speech to the National Governors Association. “Everybody was telling Leslie, ‘We can’t do health care now. We don’t want to talk about health care.’ But Leslie just kept at it,” says Mr. Deaver. Mr. Scott took Mr. Dach’s advice, announcing in his Edelman-drafted speech that Wal-Mart would improve health benefits for its workers by such steps as loosening eligibility requirements for part-timers.

Company officials are heartened that none of the bills modeled on Maryland ‘s law survived this year, although that may have more to do with a federal judge’s decision in July to strike down the Maryland law because he said it encroached on federal authority.

In Mr. Scott’s speech at this year’s annual meeting, he used an Edelman-inspired line with political echoes: “This company is committed to working families.” In all, Mr. Scott used the expression “working families” 10 times in that speech, which Edelman wrote, and 11 times in two other talks around the same time. Since Edelman’s hiring, Wal-Mart has issued at least 44 press releases mentioning working families to describe its customers and employees.

Later in the summer, Edelman booked Mr. Scott in several unfamiliar forums, such as Mr. Sharpton’s radio show, where the CEO fielded questions from listeners. In July, Mr. Dach arranged for former Vice President Al Gore to speak about environmental issues and screen his global-warming movie “An Inconvenient Truth” at a quarterly meeting of Wal-Mart employees and environmental groups. Mr. Gore’s camp initially had concerns about Wal-Mart’s sincerity on the issue, but Mr. Dach helped allay them. “Leslie brings some credibility and integrity,” said Roy Neel, Mr. Gore’s chief of staff.

This summer, Wal-Mart decided to bring Mr. Dach in-house. Mr. Dach was already so intimately involved in planning that he sometimes heard of key developments within Wal-Mart prior to the company’s own senior PR staffers, according to people familiar with the situation. Yesterday, Robert McAdam, who has been a top Wal-Mart PR executive since 2000, told colleagues he is leaving the retailer. In an interview, Mr. McAdam said his departure has nothing to do with Mr. Dach’s arrival.

In hiring Mr. Dach, Wal-Mart granted him stock then valued at $3 million and nearly 169,000 options. The retailer allows him to split his time between Bentonville and Washington , D.C., with Washington remaining his primary residence. He also gained oversight of the $1 billion Wal-Mart Foundation, a charitable group. “I’m convinced Wal-Mart is changing and the change is real,” Mr. Dach wrote in an email to friends announcing the move.

© 2006 Wall St. Journal