Walmart Picks a Fight with The New York Times: Good PR or Bad?

Image: BusinessInsider.com
Image: BusinessInsider.com

Walmart is a brand perpetually under fire for one reason or another. The mega-retailer has come under fire numerous times over the years for pushing shoddy products, driving smaller companies out of business, executing unfair labor practices, and basically running a feudal enterprise that pays employees just enough to keep them without allowing them to improve their economic standing.

Rather than run damage control against accusations of unethical business practices, legitimate or otherwise, Walmart has taken a new, decidedly more controversial approach.

In response to a piece written last week by New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, Walmart’s vice president of corporate communications, David Tovar, executed a harsh, sarcastic blog post, writing that he “couldn’t overlook how wildly inaccurate it is.”

Tovar’s approach was to treat Egan’s column as a journalism student’s assignment that he was grading. Complete with notes scribbled in red pen, Tovar tore apart Egan’s piece, refuting a number of points in his article. Egan has since responded with some comments of his own, and now the battle is joined.

Whatever your opinion of Walmart—and few of us are ambivalent about Walmart, so try to let your objectivity shine here—the real question to ask is whether or not this was a good PR move on the part of the retailer.

On the plus side:

  • Exposure. A simple, well-worded response to the Times op-ed page refuting Egan’s statement would probably have been published, but it would have been quickly forgotten. Tovar’s approach certainly drew more attention to Walmart’s side of the story.
  • Creativity. Responding to Egan’s piece as if it were the submission of a first-year journalism student is certainly original. It has sparked interest in the media and initiated a broader conversation that would otherwise not have taken place.

On the minus side:

  • Choose your battles. It’s a long-held truth that it is not good business to get into a battle with members of the media. It’s hard to generate good PR for your brand when you’ve made enemies with reporters or certain news outlets.
  • Professionalism is important. Snark is more prevalent in today’s society, but that doesn’t make it good business. Never let emotion get the better of you if you find yourself in a dust-up with a reporter. Stick to the facts you can prove, and leave it at that.

Follow Richard Brownell: @RickBrownell