Throw me a bone, Wal Mart

08/09/2011 05:29:00 PM
Tom Karst

"Love means never having to say you’re sorry” is the memorable line from the 1970 movie Love Story.

I think I will revise the quote to “The Wal-Mart public relations department means never having to return media calls.’

Sorry if that hurts, Wal-Mart, but dagnabit, you just aren’t very helpful sometimes.

Case in point; this intrepid reporter (speaking of myself in the third person) was trying to contact a Wal-Mart spokesman on the issue of the company’s sustainable produce assessment. Wal-Mart official Daniel Hazman presented the retail giant’s path to measuring fresh produce sustainability in late June at the 2011 Sustainable Food Lab Leadership Annual Summit near Portland.

A quick overview of the agenda for that meeting can be found here.

It would be quite helpful to have some comment from Wal-Mart about what they expect of the industry in the way of sustainability self-assessments or audits, even if they do it in the most generic possible way.

“We are getting industry input on what measures for sustainability are necessary and appropriate.” would have worked just fine. Wal-Mart didn’t have to spill all the details on when they will ask how much water, energy, fertilizers and pesticides that growers use per unit of food produced.

But at least give the industry some kind of heads up.

Contacting Wal-Mart is now done via the Web, with an Internet page allowing the reporter to list name, number and contact information. A box is provided, with instructions: “please detail your story, its context and what information you would like from Wal-Mart. Specific questions are appreciated and will help us route your inquiry to the proper person for faster service.”

Replying to press inquiries by e-mail is the safer route for Wal-Mart, because the chain can carefully parse its words to a specific meaning and nothing more. There is no chance to be caught off balance by a follow-up question from a thinking reporter on the other end of the phone.

So one would think that Wal-Mart could at least provide some context to the discussion by an e-mail response and do so without fear of being tripped up.

Having been disappointed before by Wal-Mart, my expectations were not sky high. As a journalist, one never loses all hope, though. So I waited for Wal-Mart’s response.

I do credit Wal-Mart that they responded, even it if was a non-response.

Their e-mail simply said: “Thanks for the inquiry. But unfortunately this isn’t something we are discussing publicly at this time.  Please keep in touch and we will definitely let you know when we have something to announce.”

Likewise, The Packer's Don Schrack ran into a similar roadblock when inquiring about Wal-Mart’s position on reusable plastic containers.

“Thank you for your inquiry and I apologize that it has taken this long for someone to get back to you, Unfortunately, we won’t have anything to provide for your story.”

To some produce suppliers, these perceived slights to aggrieved produce journalists probably seem minor in the extreme.

After all, what fresh produce marketer — no matter how big — would actually venture to put out an “on the record” opinion about Wal-Mart’s business practices? It would be a fast track toward a new, less appealing business model.

Wal-Mart must have about 20% of the U.S. grocery business now; that kind of clout is hard to ignore. Even our trade association leaders aren’t eager to chime in about Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart suffers from the same image problem as Congress. We like the members of Congress we elect, but as a whole the group is sorely lacking likability. .

The folks we know at Wal-Mart are great. It is the corporate runaround we don’t like.

The “best case” scenario for Wal Mart is to have a “point person” that would develop relationships with key media, including the trade press. That might be the beginning of a new kind of love story - one that involves responding to phone calls and requests for comment.



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