Reputation Mgmt. vs. Constituency Bldg.


The New York Times today jumped on the Wal-Mart bashing bandwagon by reporting on left coast filmmaker Bob Greenwald’s critical documentary about the retail giant’s less than savory business practices. The Times’s L.A.-based reporter David Halbfinger acknowledges that this film follows on the heals of a very negative, Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the Bentonville bully in the Los Angeles Times, and an equally critical special on PBS “Frontline” (WGBH). This week, I also caught a CNBC special report that likely caused considerable hand-wringing in Wal-Mart’s corp. comm. department in spite of (or perhaps because of) the on-camera inclusion of company CEO Lee Scott.

I could speculate on how Wal-Mart has stepped up its PR efforts to combat all the allegations against it, but instead choose to focus on several items of note in the story. On the question of balance and the use of PR, the filmmaker said: ‘”I don’t feel an obligation, because they are spending $2 million a day now telling their side of the story,” he said, asserting that Wal-Mart spent that much on public relations.’

Did he say $2 million a day!? Yeah right! Also, in identifying the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, The Times reporter snidely cited one of her responsibilities as “reputation management,” as if this were some insidious calling.

If reputation management is nefarious, then what do you call the filmmaker’s efforts to gain third-party support (to raise money and awareness) from the likes of the Petroleum Marketers Assn., United Church of Christ, the NEA… In PR parlance, that’s called grassroots constituency building. Funny, it doesn’t seem to have the same negative connotation as “reputation management,” given their comparable roles in the PR mix.