[Marxism] Democratic Party consultants work in Wal-Mart war-room
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 3 08:51:11 MST 2005
NY Times, November 1, 2005
A New Weapon for Wal-Mart: A War Room
By MICHAEL BARBARO
BENTONVILLE, Ark., Oct. 26 - Inside a stuffy, windowless room here,
veterans of the 2004 Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns sit, stand and
pace around six plastic folding tables. Open containers of pistachio nuts
and tropical trail mix compete for space with laptops and BlackBerries. CNN
flickers on a television in the corner.
The phone rings, and a 20-something woman answers. "Turn on Fox," she
yells, running up to the TV with a notepad. "This could be important."
A scene from a campaign war room? Well, sort of. It is a war room inside
the headquarters of Wal-Mart, the giant discount retailer that hopes to
sell a new, improved image to reluctant consumers.
Wal-Mart is taking a page from the modern political playbook. Under fire
from well-organized opponents who have hammered the retailer with
criticisms of its wages, health insurance and treatment of workers,
Wal-Mart has quietly recruited former presidential advisers, including
Michael K. Deaver, who was Ronald Reagan's image-meister, and Leslie Dach,
one of Bill Clinton's media consultants, to set up a rapid-response public
relations team in Arkansas.
When small-business owners or union officials - also employing political
operatives from past campaigns - criticize the company, the war room swings
into action with press releases, phone calls to reporters and instant Web
One target of the effort are "swing voters," or consumers who have not
soured on Wal-Mart. The new approach appears to reflect a fear that
Wal-Mart's critics are alienating the very consumers it needs to keep
growing, especially middle-income Americans motivated not just by price,
but by image.
The first big challenge of the strategy will come Nov. 1 with the premiere
of an unflattering documentary. "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" was
made on a shoestring budget of $1.8 million and will be released in about
two dozen theaters. But its director, Robert Greenwald, hopes to show the
movie in thousands of homes and churches in the next month. The possibility
that it might become a cult hit like Michael Moore's 1989 unsympathetic
portrait of General Motors, "Roger & Me," has Wal-Mart worried.
So, Wal-Mart has embarked on a counteroffensive that would have been
unthinkable even a year ago. Relying on a preview posted online, Wal-Mart
investigated the events described in the film and produced a short video
contending the film has factual errors. (Mr. Greenwald denies there are
errors and says that Wal-Mart has not seen the final cut.)
Wal-Mart has also begun to promote a second film, "Why Wal-Mart Works & Why
That Makes Some People Crazy," which casts the company in a rosier light.
Wal-Mart declined to make its executives available for the Greenwald film,
but it participated with the second film's director, Ron Galloway. The war
room team helped distribute a letter, written by Mr. Galloway, that
challenges Mr. Greenwald to show the two movies side-by-side.
To keep up with its critics, Wal-Mart "has to run a campaign," said Robert
McAdam, a former political strategist at the Tobacco Institute who now
oversees Wal-Mart's corporate communications. "It's simply nonsense for us
to let some of these attacks go without a response."
Wal-Mart's aggressive new posture is a departure from its tradition of
relying on an internal staff to manage the company's image. The war room,
which is part of a larger Wal-Mart effort to portray itself as more
worker-friendly and environmentally conscious, runs counter to the
philosophy of the chain's founder, Sam Walton. Believing that public
relations was a waste of time and money, the penny-pinching Mr. Walton
would not likely have hired a public relations firm like Edelman,
Wal-Mart's choice to operate its war room.
So what has changed? For one thing, Wal-Mart's critics have become more
For years, unions hurled little more than insults at the chain. But over
the last year, two small groups - Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart - set
up shop in Washington with the goal of waging the public relations
equivalent of guerilla warfare against the company. Wal-Mart Watch received
start-up cash from the Service Employees International Union; Wake Up
Wal-Mart is a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers
International Union. Unions have tried, unsuccessfully, to organize
At the suggestion of Wake Up Wal-Mart, members of the nation's largest
teachers' unions staged a boycott of Wal-Mart for back-to-school supplies
this fall. Wal-Mart Watch, meanwhile, set up an automated phone system that
called 10,000 people in Arkansas in June seeking potential whistle-blowers
willing to share secrets about the retailer.
Wal-Mart did not rebut such attacks, even when Wal-Mart Watch released a
24-page report blasting the company's wages and benefits. Wal-Mart Watch
said the report had been downloaded from its Web site 55,000 times.
Once a darling of Wall Street, Wal-Mart's stock price has fallen 27 percent
since 2000, when H. Lee Scott Jr. became chief executive, a drop that
executives have said reflects, in part, investors' anxieties about the
company's image. Sales growth at stores open for more than a year has
slowed to an average of 3.5 percent a month this year, compared with 6.3
percent at Target. And Wal-Mart is facing growing resistance to new urban
stores, with high- profile defeats in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
There is some evidence that criticism is influencing consumers. A
confidential 2004 report prepared by McKinsey & Company for Wal-Mart, and
made public by Wal-Mart Watch, found that 2 percent to 8 percent of
Wal-Mart consumers surveyed have ceased shopping at the chain because of
"negative press they have heard."
The Greenwald movie threatens to make matters worse. It features
whistle-blowers who describe Wal-Mart managers cheating workers out of
overtime pay and encouraging them to seek state-sponsored health care when
they cannot afford the company's insurance. And it travels across
small-town America to assess the effects on independent businesses and
downtowns after a Wal-Mart opens.
The film is a particular concern now that Wal-Mart is trying to move
upscale, a strategy it hopes will appeal to higher-income consumers. In the
last year, Wal-Mart has introduced a line of urban fashions called Metro 7,
hired hundreds of fashion specialists to monitor how clothing is displayed
in stores, and produced more polished advertising.
But for the fashion strategy to pay off, Wal-Mart must win over a group of
shoppers who are sensitive to criticism of the chain's record - consumers,
in the words of Wal-Mart's chief executive, "who are not worried about
their next paycheck."
Hence the war room in Bentonville. Wal-Mart executives realized they were
unprepared to react to what Mr. Scott began to call the most expensive
campaign ever waged against a corporation. So the company quietly mailed a
letter to the country's biggest public relations firms several months ago
seeking their help in developing a response.
The contract went to Edelman, which assigned its top two Washington
operatives to the account. Wal-Mart would not say what it is paying
Edelman, nor would it allow interviews with the war room staff. Mr. Dach,
who is active in environmental and Democratic causes, was an outside
adviser to President Clinton during the impeachment battle. Mr. Deaver was
President Reagan's communications director and the creative force behind
Mr. Reagan's so-called Teflon image.
Edelman also dispatched at least six former political operatives to
Bentonville, including Jonathan Adashek, director of national delegate
strategy for John Kerry, and David White, who helped manage the 1998
re-election of Representative Nancy Johnson, a Connecticut Republican.
Terry Nelson, who was the national political director of the 2004 Bush
campaign, advises the group.
In turn, Wakeup Wal-Mart is led by, among others, Paul Blank, former
political director for the Howard Dean presidential campaign, and Chris
Kofinis, who helped create the DraftWesleyClark.com campaign.
Wal-Mart Watch's media team includes Jim Jordan, former director of the
Kerry campaign, and Tracy Sefl, a former Democratic National Committee aide
responsible for distributing negative press reports about President Bush
during the 2004 campaign.
The war room staff arrives at Wal-Mart's headquarters, a short drive from a
nearby corporate apartment where they live, by 7 every morning. The group
works out of an old conference room on the second floor, christened Action
Alley, the same name Wal-Mart gives to the wide, circular aisle that runs
around its stores.
Three display boards are covered with to-do lists. One says: "Promote Week
of 10/24/05: MLK Memorial Donation. Urban/blighted community plan." Two
large maps show the location of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores across the
The team starts the day by scanning newspaper articles and television
transcripts that mention Wal-Mart. Next come conference calls with Wal-Mart
employees around the country to plan for events. Whenever possible, Mr.
McAdam said, the war room will try to neutralize criticism before it is
That was the strategy behind what Action Alley considers its first coup. In
late September, after several unions broke off from the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the
splinter groups announced they would hold a convention in St. Louis on a
Action Alley members, assuming Wal-Mart would be a target of criticism
during the union gathering, arranged for Wal-Mart to hold its own news
conference the day before. It invited three local suppliers, a sympathetic
local official and a cashier to say that Wal-Mart had a positive effect on
"If you look at many of the stories that were written about that overall
convention, they've got our messages in them," Mr. McAdam said. "In the
past, when we've just responded to something somebody else is doing, it's
sort of 'you know, by the way, Wal-Mart says ...' We got ahead of this one."
A campaign atmosphere pervades Action Alley. A small bus with the words
"Clinton-Gore" on the side sits on the table. When discussing Wakeup
Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Watch and the Greenwald movie, Mr. McAdam slips into
"The people who show up at Mr. Greenwald's film are probably not swing
voters," he said. "They are probably the true believers of their point of
view and I doubt there is a heck of a lot we can do to change their minds."
Mr. McAdam continued: "They've got their base. We've got ours. But there is
a group in the middle that really we all need to be talking to."
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