I used to read Jeff Jarvis' blog daily and I still think he's worth listening to but eventually his rants just wore me down. I came across this one via TechMeme though and wanted to address it.
In a post entitled "What PR won't fix" he attacks Wal-Mart for suing a former employee who was hit by a truck and who suffered brain damage because of it. The employee was awarded $1 million dollars after suing the truck company responsible and Wal-Mart is legally entitled to some of that money because they paid for her medical care up to that point. So Wal-Mart sued the employee to get a part of the settlement (about $400,000 of it).
Now, I agree with Mr. Jarvis that Wal-Mart was stupid to go after this money and that it doesn't reflect well on the company. Where I disagree with him is here...
No amount of PR and no number of company blogs can make a bad company look good — or smart. Wal-Mart is the poster pig for that lipstick. Again and again, they prove themselves to be mean, greedy, and stupid. Again and again, they and their PR people are forced to apologize. And it’s clear: They never learn. The culture remains venal. Management remains blind to the fact that their moral myopia is bad for the brand and bad for business. Even the PR company, Edelman, fails to realize that this is bringing them down — who’d want to trust them after they keep throwing themselves on swords for Wal-Mart and who’d want to hire them given Wal-Mart’s horrid reputation — and they’d be better off resigning the account, no matter what it’s worth. Greed is usually such a simplistic explanation for bad behavior but in this case, it explains everything. This wouldn’t be so incredibly apparent if it didn’t keep happening over and over and over again.
Wal-mart is not a bad company. Bad companies do not become the largest public corporation in existence. Wal-Mart is a monolithic company though and that size creates PR issues by definition.
On this issue, I sincerely doubt Wal-Mart management even knew about all this until it blew up in their face. Without knowing the internal workings of Wal-Mart I can almost guarantee that no one even looked at the issue until it got passed to the lawyer litigating it.
So there may be one low level lawyer out there who realized what was actually going on but beyond that an issue like this just gets rubber stamped down the line. No one is going to actually look at it and in a company as big as Wal-Mart that's unavoidable.
Everything gets proceduralized when you have 2 million employees to look after and some times people make honest mistakes when writing up those procedures.
The real PR issue isn't that Wal-Mart is evil but that big corporations work like this by nature. So they are going to create these types of problems no matter how vigilant management is. No one group of people can track every corporate issue that arises in a company as big as Wal-Mart. More to the point, their PR firms should know this and be prepared to deal with these issues.
Assuming something like this is inevitable is something Edelman should have done when first getting the account and they should have made preparations for it in advance. If I were them, I would have asked Wal-Mart for an emergency fund controlled by Edelman that could be used in this type of incident. That way Edelman could act at the first sign of trouble rather than having to battle through the Wal-Mart bureaucracy.
Had Edelman done that they could have come in after the first article was published and (a) apologized, (b) explained how these things happen in a big company and how Wal-Mart regrets it and (c) given the family a couple hundred thousand dollars extra for their trouble. Then the story becomes one of Wal-Mart's contrition and generosity rather than their, as Jeff Jarvis put it, "meanness".