Arun Sudhaman 13 Mar 2013 // 11:30AM GMT
Two major stories within the space of a few days provide as good a reason as any to take stock of Walmart's public relations affairs. The first, revealed last week by the Holmes Report, saw the retailer consolidate consumer PR with GolinHarris. It is hard not feel a measure of sympathy for incumbent Cohn & Wolfe. Sources suggest that Walmart consolidated the business to improve its internal processes, as much as anything. Like many account moves, disappointingly, there is little to indicate any dissatisfaction with the actual quality of the incumbent firm's work. All of which should not detract from GolinHarris’ accomplishment, providing another sign of steady progress from its G4 agency model. That story was soon followed by the news that corporate affairs head Leslie Dach is to leave the company. Dach’s seven-year career at Walmart can probably be described as transformative for the retail giant. Before he arrived, Walmart was known as much for its low profile as its low costs. It did not talk to the press or opinion formers, nor did it articulate a point of view on the issues on which it wielded enormous influence, notably sustainability and sourcing. Dach changed much of that. Under his leadership the company began a very visible commitment to environmental standards and better supply chain practices, forcing the hand of FMCG companies like Unilever and P&G. Not only did Walmart’s messages change, but so did its actions. Do recent events tarnish Dach’s legacy? An unpleasant bribery scandal in Mexico erupted last year, along with reports of continuing challenges in its supply chain. To let these events diminish Dach’s accomplishments might be unfair, particularly when you consider the limitations of his role at the massive company. The same can probably be said of Walmart’s renewed focus on its low-cost heritage. Even if you take the view that this is incompatible with the ‘Live Better’ half of its tagline, the company’s consumer marketing operation is unlikely to pay that argument much heed during a period of deep economic malaise. As the world's largest retailer, Walmart will continue to face intense scrutiny as it expands globally. And so it should. Yet Dach’s eventual successor will find a public relations offering in much better shape than when the former Edelman executive arrived at the company in 2006. And that, as much as anything, is testimony to Walmart’s progress over the past seven years.