I won’t bore you with the details of the case being reported today by The New York Times, which features a six-year cover-up of corruption in Wal-Mart’s Mexican operations, but I will take a moment or two to make a point I’ve made before in situations such as this one, about the role of public relations. I’d be interested to know whether there was in any PR involvement in the decision not only to cover up the results of its own internal investigation but to chastise its own investigators for being “too aggressive,” which is apparently then-chief executive Lee Scott’s phrase for people who take their job seriously.  The question that always intrigues me in such instances is what the role of the company’s PR advisors was in all of this. As always, I see three possibilities:
  1. No one from the PR department was consulted.
  2. The PR department was consulted, gave good advice, and was ignored.
  3. The PR department was consulted, and went along with the cover up.
If either of the first two is the case in this instance, Wal-Mart is (or was) a company with no respect for the public relations function and its PR people should consider whether it’s worth working at a place that holds PR—and in this instance at least, its stakeholders—in contempt. If the third is the case, its PR people are incompetent and Wal-Mart should be looking elsewhere. One additional observation: the company’s response, that “many of the alleged activities in The New York Times article are more than six years old,” is pretty weak. The crimes may have been committed six months ago, but the cover-up was going on as recently as yesterday. (The only thing I will say is that the six-year timeframe does have some salience as far as the company’s current PR team is concerned. Current executive VP of corporate affairs Leslie Dach joined in July of 2006, so it’s not clear whether he was part of the leadership team when the company made this decision. And Scott departed in 2009, so it’s possible that the company’s new leadership team is a little more enlightened. On the other hand, the person responsible for the bribes in the first place was promoted to vice chairman in 2008 and continues to serve in that role.)