Tag Archives: Walmart

Should you respond to nasties online? Walmart’s new approach

One thing that has become all too transparent with social media and the Internet is that there are an awful lot of ugly, nasty people out there. And when they can hide behind anonymity they can get real ugly. That reality has driven a whole new class of reputation crisis. But left many with the question of what do you do when the uglies, nasties and digital mob start creaming you online?

My sense is that the standard answer (certainly mine has been) is that it doesn’t make sense to respond to any and every gratuitous attack. Monitor, monitor, monitor and if it looks like some accusation is getting legs then respond. However, I continually am surprised by the remnants of the old Mark Twain comment (I think it was Twain) who said never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. While that refers to news, because of the impossibility of determining a meaningful distinction between new media and old media, it also applies in some thinking to online attacks as well. Particularly if the attack is coming from someone with a large following.

The old saw about buying ink by the barrel must be balanced against another old say: a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. Walmart, it seems, is signing up to that idea with a new policy of not allowing gratuitous attacks online to go unchallenged. This digiday article on Walmart’s social media reputation SWAT team gives a very interesting insight into how Walmart deals with the 60,000 comments online about the company.

While your organization may not be Walmart in representing such a juicy target, if you have concerns about what may emerge online a study of Walmart’s approach is very worthwhile. This article gives a great behind the scenes look. The key difference in Walmart’s policy is this:

The internal mantra at Walmart: No free shots. This is a shift. Up until about a year and a half ago, Walmart took a passive approach to its critics on social media. It used social as a media relations tool to push out messages when it was convenient to them.

Social media is primarily about engagement. I see many approach it with old media thinking–that it is one way. Social media is two way. Sort of like talking to people. You won’t get much respect if in your conversation with others you just talk, talk, talk and never recognize that your conversation partner might have something to say.

Walmart bribery crisis–what do you do when you’ve done wrong

The New York Times story revealing Walmart’s alleged bribery of government officials enabling the company to grow very rapidly in Mexico probably has a familiar ring to many in crisis management. The question is: how do you help a client who has done wrong, that is violated the law, ethics, or moral standards and values commonly held by the community or society?

Walmart’s problem here goes far beyond bribery. This is a classic of what of the coverup story. As juicy as the story about foreign bribery is, what makes it so much more interesting to the NYT, and presumably its readers, is the alleged coverup. These events happened in 2005. NYT has hundreds of emails involving top executives and company lawyers fretting over it. But the NYT reports:

In December, after learning of The Times’s reporting in Mexico, Wal-Mart informed the Justice Department that it had begun an internal investigation into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act…

In other words, according to the NYT the company knew about the violations, had intense discussions about what to do, but did not report to the Justice Department, nor come clean with the public or media about the dirty dealings until forced to by the NYT investigation.

The allegations are that company real estate officials bribed Mexican government officials to get approvals to place Walmart stores over Mexico. Walmart is huge in Mexico, employing over 200,000 people and is the country’s largest private employer.

The company’s response is measured, focused and on the one hand, strong. They noted (complained) that the story reports on events that happened over 6 years ago. They say they took independent action to investigate. They state their commitment to fully comply with FCPA. They provide some specific details on how they are insuring future compliance. And they commit to deal appropriately with anyone determined to have violated.

In others, they admitted to no wrong doing and stated commitments and actions. But, given what is at issue here, it is a very weak response. What about the implied cover-up? Why not an explanation for the delay? Why complain about the NYT dredging up old accusations when it is news because it has not been reported before, and why mention this in the context of an implied coverup?

It seems some rules about crisis communication have evolved quite clearly in the past few years. One main one is, if you’ve done wrong, fess up. Don’t obfuscate, duck and weave. If senior leaders knew about the very serious potential problems in Mexico way back in 2005, then I believe Mr. Tovar should have said “we would have met our own standard for honesty, integrity and legality if we had fully and independently investigated when these allegations first appeared and if warranted, turn them over to the government for investigation.”

When facing a client who has done wrong, I tell them that whatever they have done wrong to accept responsibility, show they are remorseful, and demonstrate that by taking action that rectifies the harm done. If they haven’t done wrong, then clearly explain why the accusers are wrong in their suggestions or allegations. If, as is often the case, there is a mix of wrong doing and over-wrought accusations, then the explanation of where the accusations are wrong must done with humility and contriteness given that at least some are accurate.

If the NYT article is wrong, if the accusations of bribery and worse, of cover-up are overwrought, Walmart has done little to convince they are being treated unfairly. If the accusations are valid (which we must consider that given the lack of rebuttal), then Walmart has to come much further in accepting responsibility and admitting they violated our trust.