BENTONVILLE, AR—Facing increasing scrutiny over its labor practices, retail giant Wal-Mart has hired former American Airlines public relations executive Gus Whitcomb as communications director, issues and litigation. He will report to Mona Williams, vice president of corporate communications.
According to Williams, Whitcomb will be responsible for “message development, and ensuring Wal-Mart’s voice is heard in press coverage of our ongoing, high-profile issues, many of which relate to employment.” His team will also provide communications support to the more than 3,000 Wal-Mart stores in the United States.
Whitcomb was most recently managing director in charge of international, alliance, and crisis communications at American Airlines, with responsibility for global media relations and crisis communications. He was head of the airline’s communications during American’s fight to stay out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He also served as acting managing director of corporate communications after Tim Doke left the airline’s top PR position to work with Dell.
Whitcomb’s previous experience includes work on the agency side, with technology PR specialist Neale-May & Partners, and corporate positions with Aloha Airlines, America West Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways and Greenwich Air Services.
The appointment comes as Wal-Mart begins to take a more aggressive approach to managing labor and other issues. The company has been criticized for using contractors who employ illegal aliens, for discriminating against female employees, and for allegedly locking workers in its stores and forcing them to work unpaid overtime.
But a Reuters story this week says executives have “started firing off letters to the editor responding to critical news articles and editorials.” The company has also changed some of its advertising to showcase women managers and to feature employees telling how much they enjoy working for the company, which is currently ranked as the most admired in the country, according to the annual Fortune survey.
“No one likes to hear someone say something negative about their family,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark told Reuters. “There are some things out there that are totally inaccurate and we’re looking to set the record state.”
Whitcomb will also provide communications support during two major trials involving the Arkansas company. A California judge is expected to decide later this year whether a sex discrimination lawsuit against the company should proceed as a class-action case covering 1.5 million current and former employees, and a Pennsylvania grand jury is close to completing its deliberations in a case involving illegal workers at Wal-Mart stores.