In July I published a column titled "How Are We Supposed to Feel About Walmart? Other Than Bad?" The discount retail chain was in the news at the time because of its threats to cancel plans for new Washington, D.C., stores over a so-called "living wage" bill that would have forced large employers to pay at least $12.50 per hour. (In September, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the bill.)
The point of my column, as expressed in its subtitle, was to explore "What Happens When a Relentlessly Negative Media Narrative Drowns Out Your Brand Messaging." Now, four months later, Walmart is experiencing a fresh wave of negative media attention, thanks to a Cleveland Plain Dealer story about a Canton, Ohio, Walmart that has been soliciting food donations. As the paper's Olivera Perkins reports,
It's a food drive -- not for the community, but for needy workers.
"Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates in Need Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner," read signs affixed to the tablecloths.
The food drive tables are tucked away in an employees-only area. They are another element in the backdrop of the public debate about salaries for cashiers, stock clerks and other low-wage positions at Walmart, as workers in Cincinnati and Dayton are scheduled to go on strike Monday.
The story has, inevitably, blown up; Gawker's late-Monday spin on it, for instance, was "Walmart Asks Employees to Donate Food to Help Starving Coworkers." And while a Walmart spokesman told the Plain Dealer that the food drive was "part of the company's culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships," a reader poll embedded in the story suggests that many folks aren't buying that spin. As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have voted in the poll, which asks, "What do you think about Walmart's food drive?" Nearly 89% agree with the statement "I think this illustrates that Walmart needs to pay its employees better wages," while less than 7% agree that "I think this program helps Walmart employees through their hardships."
If you read my column from July, you already know how I feel about Walmart. As I noted then, karma can be a bitch. And now, indeed, Walmart's vigorous opposition to D.C.'s minimum wage bill is a vivid part of the very backstory that makes the Canton food drive look so bad -- despite the communications team's attempts at defense.
Please read Olivera Perkins' full Plain Dealer report for more insight into the chain's latest controversy, but for now I'll leave you with this piercing quote she got from Canton resident and local organizer Norma Mills:
That Walmart would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate food to other low-wage workers -- to me, it is a moral outrage.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.