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For Walmart, No Good Deed Should Go Unpunished
By: Jeannine Wheeler
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When a Walmart store held a food drive for its own employees, criticism of the multinational retail giant spread quickly.
The controversy began when word leaked out that a Canton, Ohio Walmart had put out boxes to elicit food donations for its employees by its employees. The boxes, which were not displayed publicly and only meant for Walmart staff, displayed a sign that said, “Please donate food items here so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.”
Walmart calls its employees Associates.
The media soon got hold of the story, as did Walmart protest groups, including the unions that have been trying to organize Walmart workers for years. The incident only served to provide new fodder to critics of the retail behemoth.
“That Walmart would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate food to other low-wage workers — to me, it is a moral outrage,” said one observer to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Only a few short years ago, local newspaper coverage and an editorial might have been the end of it. With the advent of social media, however, this was the gift that just kept on giving. Controversy ignited across the nation on such social media channels as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and, notably, the comments section below web-based media articles.  
Comments below the Time magazine web coverage, for example, did include some support from the public.
“Why is it bad for a company to allow staff members to help each other out in their time of need? Customers weren't asked to donate, these bins were in staff rooms so staff could help each other.”

“I have been employed there for 24 years!!  I love my second family and would do anything that I possibly can to help any one of my coworkers!”

Many, however, were critical, focusing on some of the familiar themes that have long been waged against the world’s second largest corporation.

“It is unconscionable that this multi-billion dollar company pays sub-standard wages to their employers and then has the nerve to suggest that underpaid employees should come to the aid of their co-workers.”

“Since Walmart isn't doing so well lately, perhaps the American public should organize a food drive for the Walton family.  Oh wait, that's what we already do when we subsidize their wages with public benefits for employees!”

“I can only hope that the reason their profits are declining is because people like myself won't give money to a corporation that treats its employees like this.”

From a PR standpoint, the situation only served to put Walmart in the spotlight over its low-wage policies. Could this not have been anticipated when the idea of a food drive was suggested at the Ohio store? How far up the corporate chain did this local idea go? Did Walmart headquarters clear the idea?

In this case, it is not clear if the Canton store manager checked with corporate (Walmart has 4,800 stores) before running its employee food drive, which reportedly it had been doing for several years around Thanksgiving time.

In general, however, a good policy for PRs or managers when working within an affiliate system is to take the "smell test" before running programs that might affect the company reputation and to clear it up the chain of command.

Although your program may be shot down in the end, if it does go ahead, at least you have some corporate cover if it all goes wrong. You will also have the chance to agree on a media statement and response, along with a set of anticipated Q&As.

With sustained criticism of the retail giant’s staff policies already well established by such groups as OUR Walmart and others who are planning large-scale protests on Black Friday, the food drive could not have come at a worse time.

Although it is not clear what happened in this case, the Walmart food drive controversy offers a few good lessons to PRs in any industry. Inform headquarters of activities you think might cause controversy (a good ear for this kind of thing is a PR’s best friend); and have on hand some agreed responses should the situation become public and controversial.

For its part, Walmart offered company spokesperson Kory Lundberg, who told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the food drive signs prove that employees care about one another.

"This is part of the company's culture to rally around associates (Walmart’s term for its employees) and take care of them when they face extreme hardship," Lundberg said.

In addition, Lundberg defended the company's treatment of workers, saying, “It takes extra steps to help those who have financial problems. He noted that employees could also receive grants up to $1,500 via its Associates in Critical Need Trust, which can be used to address homelessness, serious medical illness and major repairs to primary vehicles. Grants totaling $80 million have been made since 2001, the newspaper reported.”

According to the Huffington Post, “When reached for comment, Walmart representatives referred The Huffington Post to information in the Plain Dealer story.”

However misguided or misinterpreted — whoever organized the Walmart food drive probably did it out of concern for fellow employees, proving once again that no good deed should go unpunished.

Still, Walmart probably could have done without it.

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About the Author
Jeannine Wheeler is a PR Director who has worked in three countries, including Russia, the US and the UK. She is currently Sr. Vice President of Pure Energy PR, a full-service boutique communications firm with a focus on the energy, healthcare, technology, construction, real estate & land development, tourism & hospitality and food & beverage industries. Jeannine is in the firm's Austin, Texas office.
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