ADVICE: Wal-Mart Shows Us How Not to Handle Negative Media Coverage

by Clay Zeigler | Public Relations

media relations

The mainstream media has been a punching bag for the American public since back when newspapers cost a penny. For more than 200 years, people and organizations of all kinds have found sympathetic audiences for their complaints about unfair news coverage. Still, it’s difficult to understand the thinking behind the recent move by Wal-Mart Stores not to respond to questions from the Huffington Post. The good news for the rest of us is this is a perfect test case for what not to do in the face of negative media coverage.

Mistake No. 1 – Banning a Publication

According to a Washington Post story, Wal-Mart won’t any longer respond to questions to the Huffington Post because of a pattern of problems over facts and perspectives. While there may be issues – perhaps legitimate ones – it doesn’t seem to make sense to deny access to an entire organization all the time.

A better approach is to weigh the topic of each Huffington Post query, the journalist submitting it, even in what department that journalist works. Favorable stories from large media outlets still have value, at least among Dallas public relations firms, so why pass up an opportunity?

Mistake No. 2 – Making the Ban Public

If Wal-Mart felt it had to stop responding to the Huffington Post, it could have done just that. After five or six no-comments, the reporters there would have gotten the idea. Instead it issued a statement to the Huffington Post. News media outlets tend to run those kinds of things. In this case The Washington Post did, along with Politico, The Nation, and others. In fact, it’s the kind of story that works well on a blog, where it can be written with more attitude.

Mistake No. 3 – Detailing the Reasons for the Ban

Erik Wemple of The Washington Post reported the details of the Wal-Mart statement, and since no one has emerged to question the accuracy of that report, I suppose we can deduce that it is. Again, the complaints of negative coverage may have validity, but making them public shows a company that’s thin-skinned.

Mistake No. 4 – Expecting Balanced Coverage

One of the Wal-Mart complaints, Wemple says, is “Huffington Post doesn’t balance the negative with other things that might cast the chain in a more balanced light, including its financial performance and its attempts to serve its customers as well as to address environmental sustainability and hunger.” Folks, that’s just not real life.

News media outlets don’t think much about balancing negative stories with positive ones about a given subject, person or company. They do seek to balance each story, at least the reputable news sources do. Most of all, though, they want to do stories that they think people find interesting.

Mistake No. 5 – Bothering At All

For most companies a single media outlet can’t have a hugely detrimental effect on how they are perceived. They no longer depend heavily on the news media to carry their messages. Through social media companies can set their own agendas and play a defining role in how they are perceived.

All that said, it’s not unusual to find a media outlet that offers your company nothing but harm without any prospect of help. In those cases, handle them like you would any other partner, but try not to cut off all communication. And if you have to cut off all communication, don’t do it like this.

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3 thoughts on “ADVICE: Wal-Mart Shows Us How Not to Handle Negative Media Coverage

  1. Bob

    Hurray for Walmart. Corporate world needs to grow some balls and stop giving out information to unfriendly media organizations. Maybe they will learn to stop biting the hand that feeds them. But I doubt it.

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  2. hwertz

    Well….

    I don’t care if a company quits talking to a specific media outlet. I don’t see a problem with them publicly stating it either. I enjoy the odd Huffington Post article, but they are by no means neutral (and don’t pretend to be), and I could fully see stopping talking to them if they were ragging on me constantly.

    That said, Walmart of course can’t expect “balanced” coverage. Especially if their idea of balanced is “Oh, but look at that financial performance!” Maybe it’s just me, but if someone’s ragging on walmart then I don’t think talking about their financials is going to balance anything out 8-)

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  3. Hera

    Maybe public relations firms could think about the actual complaints – if Walmart improved their approach to their workers and suppliers they would find that the negative coverage improved. I am sure you PR people do that in your own lives – that is your attitudes to people you are unhappy with change when they change what they do, not just what they say. It is not rocket science – but maybe it is hard for PR people to grasp. To repeat, just changing what you say or how you say it is not enough. Walmart needs to give female employees equal chances of promotion, they need to allow unions to represent their workers and they need to pay their suppliers so that all the workers in the supply chain can eat and feed their kids and so on.

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