Wal-Mart Tries to Shine Its Image By Supporting Public Broadcasting

By Constance L. Hays
First published by the New York Times, August 16, 2004

Wal-Mart Stores, stung by criticism of its labor practices, expansion plans and other business tactics, is turning to public radio, public television and journalism schools to try to improve its image.

So far this year, the company has become a sponsor on National Public Radio, where recorded messages promote its stores. It has underwritten a popular talk show, “Tavis Smiley,” accompanied by similar promotional messages, on a public television station in California .

This month, Wal-Mart announced plans to award $500,000 in scholarships to minority-group students at numerous journalism programs around the United States , including Howard University , the University of Southern California and Columbia University .

Wal-Mart has not supported any of these organizations in the past.

But as the company outgrows its rural roots and moves into suburbs and cities, it is encountering more resistance from people whose views may differ from those of Wal-Mart’s traditional customers.

The company has been faulted, for instance, for its selective approach toward the publications that it sells. It bans three men’s magazines and uses plastic covers to conceal what it considers uncomfortable headlines on several women’s titles, including Glamour and Redbook. It does not sell recordings with what it deems offensive lyrics, and manufacturers acknowledge producing sanitized versions of popular CDs to maintain a presence in the giant retailer’s stores.

Mona Williams, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the journalism scholarships were “a first of their kind” for the retailer and had come about because of recent publicity prompted by its business practices.

“We’ve really been in the spotlight, and I think that’s made us especially sensitive to the need for balanced coverage,” Williams said.

Influencing news presentation may be at the heart of the company’s recent efforts, but Williams said there was “no hidden agenda here.” She added that Wal-Mart probably would have taken its initiatives even if it had not come under scrutiny.

“Wal-Mart is doing what most corporations do,” said John Siegenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University . “When they feel pain, they try to salve the wound.”

As for public radio, Williams said the company sought the demographic profile that National Public Radio listeners represented. The goal, she said, is to “reach community leaders and help them understand the value that we bring to their areas.”

A spokeswoman for National Public Radio, Jenny Lawhorn, said its audience consisted of “intelligent and well-educated people” who “tend to be business leaders and tend to be engaged in the civic process.” According to a recent survey, about 56 percent of them are Wal-Mart shoppers, she said, compared with 66 percent of the general population.

Cultivating community leaders fits well into Wal-Mart’s plans, as the company has faced opposition to its stores in recent months. In April, its effort to open a large store in Inglewood , California , a suburb of Los Angeles , was defeated after the company took the unusual step of putting the issue on a ballot. An attempt to build a store in Chicago was rejected, although a second store was approved.

The company has also been criticized by labor unions, which say Wal-Mart fights their organizing efforts.

Neither Wal-Mart nor NPR would reveal what the company pays as an NPR sponsor. Their contract began on Feb. 16 and runs until January.

NPR’s total corporate financing is expected to reach $30 million this year, Lawhorn said. As part of its arrangement with NPR, Wal-Mart is described in several ways when it is mentioned on the network as an underwriter. The descriptions have included the following: “Wal-Mart. Providing jobs and opportunities for millions of Americans of all ages and all walks of life.”

“Tavis Smiley,” the talk show that Wal-Mart underwrites, is broadcast on KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles . The program began in January, and Wal-Mart began supporting it immediately, a spokesman for the show, Joel Brokaw, said. In late March, Smiley interviewed Wal-Mart’s chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., who is seldom made available to reporters. After disclosing twice that Wal-Mart sponsored the show, Smiley went on to ask his guest about Wal-Mart’s image problems. Brokaw said he did not know how much Wal-Mart paid to be a sponsor.

The journalism plan evolved separately from the radio sponsorship plan, Williams, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said. Wal-Mart plans to give 10 journalism schools $50,000 each to be distributed as scholarships.

©2004 New York Times