It used to be that a call from 60 Minutes was a public relations professional’s worst nightmare, but in recent months PBS seems to have taken over as the leading purveyor of anti-establishment journalism, first attempting to indict today’s chemical industry on the basis of 40-year-old “secret papers” in the Bill Moyers documentary Trade Secrets and more recently taking aim at bigotry in the Boy Scouts of America in Scout’s Honor.
So when public relations professionals at Wal-Mart learned that PBS was planning an hour-long show on what happened when the company sought to open a new store, they could be forgiven if their collars started to feel a little tight. Nevertheless, the company decided very early in the process to cooperate with the producer, Micha Peled, and never regretted that decision, despite the fact that Peled’s sympathies were clearly with the company’s critics.
“We met with the producers very early in the process and we thought they were going to be fair, or at least that they would approach the issue with an open mind,” says Jay Allen, Wal-Mart’s vice president of corporate affairs. “We tried to cooperate with them every way we could. We told them anything that would normally be considered a matter of public information, we provided subjects for interviews, we even invited them to our annual meeting.”
Peled chose to study the debate over a new Wal-Mart in Ashland, a Virginia community of 7,200 people. He chose well. The 12-month debate yielded plenty of drama for Peled’s documentary, which aired on PBS stations around the country earlier this year, beginning with a planning commission meeting that rejects the company’s proposals and culminating in a town council meeting at which Wal-Mart gets the approvals it had sought.
Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, gives approximately equal time to the company and its opponents, who called themselves the Pink Flamingoes, but with the company almost constantly on the defensive, the critics always seemed to setting the agenda. They were concerned about traffic congestion, they were concerned about the threat to retail stores on the town’s main street, they were concerned that dollars spent at Wal-Mart would not be recycled in the community, and they were concerned that Ashland would lose its unique character.
Storeowners made their case in a folksy way, designed to appeal to anyone with a soft spot for David in his battle with Goliath. Said Howard Carter, whose family shoe store—in a neighboring town—went out of business after Wal-Mart opened nearby, “If you came into my store and wanted a pair of boots, I could pull them off the shelf and tell you what was in ‘em and figure out which boot was best for you, and fit you. When you go to a Wal-Mart, the guy will tell you it’s on aisle B-3, and he thinks it’s in a box.”
The local critics were significantly more appealing than the outsiders they call on for assistance, including Sprawl Busters founder Al Norman, whose strident attacks on Wal-Mart don’t do much to help his case. When the show starts spouting statistics—a new Wal-Mart opens every two days; the company is the largest private employer in the U.S.—it becomes clear that the agenda has more to do with attacking big business than defending small communities.
But plenty of time was allotted for Wal-Mart’s rebuttal of the charges against it, and the rebuttal is articulate and—if not entirely convincing to the company’s many critics—at least compelling enough to force an acknowledgement that this is not the black-and-white issue they would like us to believe it is. The company’s response focused on new jobs, low prices, the convenience of one-stop shopping, and was reinforced by what the San Francisco Chronicle television critic described as “the nearly evangelical fervor of its own employees.”
The company also offers millions of dollars of cash incentives, extremely tempting to small towns that no longer receive enough state and federal money to provide adequate public services. Says Peved, in an interview conducted after the documentary was ready to air, “The only way most American towns can cover their budget today is by having big corporations like Wal-Mart come in and bring tax revenues. Ever since the Reagan era, American municipalities have been scrambling for additional revenue sources. Wal-Mart, in this way, has ‘come to the rescue.’”
The point is made repeatedly in Store Wars, but it is never clear why this makes the store a villain. Perhaps that’s why Allen says he was satisfied with the finished documentary.
“I thought it was very well balanced,” he says. “I thought the producers included pretty much every perspective, with one exception. I would have like to have seen more interviews with consumers, with the people who wanted this store and who would be the biggest beneficiaries of having a Wal-Mart in their community. The ultimate election takes place after the store has opened, when people decide where they are going to shop. The documentary didn’t cover that election.”
As for whether Store Wars presents a typical community and a typical battle, Allen insists there is no such thing. “No two communities are the same,” he says. “Every situation is different. There are different people involved, different dynamics, and we approach them all differently. We do try to be sensitive to the feelings of the community, but we don’t assume that a vocal minority always represents the feelings of the majority.”
Wal-Mart has learned how to deal with community hostility, but the lessons have been painful. For most of its history, the company has focused on the South East and Midwestern United States, where there was minimal resistance to its presence. It’s only as it began to expand into the North East and the West that protests began, some of them organized by labor unions concerned about the company’s labor practices, others launched by environmental and community groups concerned about issues such as traffic and homogenization.
“We probably didn’t do as well as we could have,” says Allen. “It’s very difficult to go from a situation in which everyone wants you to a situation in which people had very genuine concerns about what we might do to their communities. We had to learn our lesson, and we had to become more responsive to the concerns of these communities.”
Today, Wal-Mart’s public and community relations department includes about a half-dozen people who work more or less exclusively to support the company’s real estate division, addressing community concerns and “working to define the company before someone else defines us,” says Allen. Last year that staff worked on about 175 projects of which the company was successful in about 150 cases.
“Sam Walton always said we would never go into a community where we weren’t wanted,” says Allen. “That gets thrown in our face a lot. But if we go into a community of 30,000 people, and there are a hundred people who know how to use the media and Internet to stir up opposition, we’re not going to be turned away if we believe the majority of people want us.
“That’s a judgment we have to make every time we approach a new community. There have been times when we believed the community genuinely did not want us there when we have withdrawn voluntarily. There have been other times when we believed we had community support and we lost. But in most cases, the majority of people understand the benefits of the jobs we bring and the choice we offer at our stores.”