WAL-MART FACES OBSTACLES IN ITS PUBLIC RELATIONS EFFORT

It can be difficult to get good press when you're a superpower, as President Bush would surely confirm.While the U.S. has struggled to convince the rest of the world that conquering other nations in the name of freedom and security is laudable, the superpower of retailing, Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., faces an uphill battle in persuading the public that conquering markets in the name of low

It can be difficult to get good press when you're a superpower, as President Bush would surely confirm.

While the U.S. has struggled to convince the rest of the world that conquering other nations in the name of freedom and security is laudable, the superpower of retailing, Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., faces an uphill battle in persuading the public that conquering markets in the name of low prices is, at the least, acceptable.

Lately, Wal-Mart has taken a more proactive stance in this effort. It spent a significant portion of its annual shareholders meeting this month addressing concerns about its image as an usurper that underpays its workers. (See coverage of the meeting on Page 16).

Vice President of Corporate Affairs Betsy Reithmeyer echoed the exhortations of other Wal-Mart executives when she told attendees at the annual meeting that Wal-Mart's reputation "is everyone's responsibility."

"In church, civic groups, to your neighbors and friends, talk about the Wal-Mart you know is true," Reithmeyer said.

She has the right idea. The battle to improve Wal-Mart's image must be fought at the ground level by individual workers sharing their stories with friends and neighbors.

For such an effort to produce the results Wal-Mart desires, it ultimately must reflect the truth about the company. The odds are that few employees will tell their friends about how wonderful it is to work at Wal-Mart if they don't feel that way.

According to reports about the new wage structure that Wal-Mart unveiled at the meeting, it won't address the issue of employment conditions as much as it will the legal problems Wal-Mart has had surrounding its employment practices. It seems the new wage structure may favor increased turnover among high-paid employees, as their raises will be lower than they had once been.

The truth about Wal-Mart is that while working there may be better than not working at all, it is not as good as working for many supermarket companies. Despite the inflammatory rhetoric that goes back and forth between the United Food and Commercial Workers and the supermarket chains (see Page 30), in fact they are allies in the battle to curb Wal-Mart's incursion into food retailing.

Perhaps, as Wal-Mart encourages its employees to promote their workplace, the UFCW and the chains it bargains with should work together to better articulate the advantages of traditional supermarket employment.

GMA Gets Supersized

"Supersize Me," a documentary about a man whose health deteriorates as he eats only McDonald's food for a month, illustrates that Wal-Mart isn't the only company in our industry having some public relations problems.

Although McDonald's is cast as the primary villain, several packaged foods manufacturers also get skewered as the protagonist takes them to task for promoting foods high in sugar and fat.

Concerning these companies, Gene Grabowski, formerly vice president of communications for Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington, admits on screen that some GMA members are to blame for the expansion of Americans' waistlines.

As the movie ends, it says Grabowski "no longer works for the GMA." Grabowski left the association last year to pursue other interests.