OLD Media Moves

Wal-Mart and the business media

January 23, 2006

Charles Fishman, a senior editor at Fast Company and a Loeb Award winner in 2005, is speaking to my Business and the Media class on Thursday. He has a new book out called “The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works–and How It’s Transforming the American Economy.” The book originated from this December 2003 article about the company for the magazine that generated more response than any other cover story in the magazine’s history.

I picked up a copy of the book today, and there are some interesting observations made by Fishman when it comes to the world’s biggest company and how it deals with the media.

On p. 7, Fishman writes, “It’s not just Wal-Mart’s presence as a merchant and employer that is so pervasive. In a single typical day of media coverage, Wal-Mart is mentioned significantly in more than one hundreds stories around the country. Each month Wal-Mart’s announcement of its sales is good for a full twenty-four-hour cycle of news coverage, more if Wal-Mart surges or stumbles, because Wal-Mart’s performance is considered a vital indicator of trends in the U.S. economy overall–are we spending confidently or not? It is a rare day that the Wall Street Journal does not have a story that mentions Wal-Mart; most days the company is cited multiple times.”

Later, on pp. 227-228, Fishman writes, “Even Wal-Mart’s long-standing inability to have a calm, rational, constructive relationship with the press is directly related to ‘every day low prices.’ Wal-Mart’s job is to build stores, find merchandise people need and want, and deliver it to shelves so they can buy it. Everything else is peripheral, irrelevant, perhaps even harmful. Talking to reporters is a waste of time–and anything that wastes staff time wastes money. The view inside Wal-Mart for most of the last fourty-four years has been that the kinds of questions reporters ask, and the kinds of stories they write, do nothing to help Wal-Mart sell merchandise–and often sound as if they are going to do just the opposite: Make customers nervous, unhappy, ‘conflicted.’ If you have a PR staff of tenty, that’s not just twenty wasted salaries; it’s twenty people servicing an outside pressure group, the media, which does not in any way help Wal-Mart deliver always low prices.

“And there has been a suspicion inside Wal-Mart that even ‘nice’ stories could be hurtful, even dangerous to Wal-Mart. Even the most apparently innocuous, rosy story–for instance, about how Wal-Mart masterminds the logistics of opening five supercenters a week–could teach competitors Wal-Mart’s hard-won secrets. At it’s worst, the press is hostile to Wal-Mart’s mission, vission, and values. At its best, the press is simply a spy system for people who want to best Wal-Mart.”

Having covered Wal-Mart for a brief time period, and having visited Bentonville once to interview the CFO, I agree with what Fishman is saying here. The company is so focused on cutting ANY costs that the CFO gave me a ride back to the Fayetteville airport at the end of the day so I wouldn’t have to pay for a taxi. And I left feeling as if my questions to Wal-Mart were often not properly answered.

An excerpt from Fishman’s book was published today on Salon.com. However, you have to be a Salon member.

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