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[24 comments]

Walmart Says 'No Comment' to HuffPost

December 5, 2012

Walmart, as has been discussed in this space many times over the years, is a very big target. I don't mention that in an effort to elicit sympathy for the company. After all, management from Sam Walton on has needed to be pretty tough to vault Walmart to its position as the largest retailer in the world. That's why I have to admit being a bit perplexed that Walmart has chosen to stop talking to a major media outlet, The Huffington Post.

David Tovar, Walmart's vice president for communications, offered the following statement to explain the retailer's decision: "We have made a business decision not to participate in Huffington Post articles going forward due to the one-sided reporting and unfair and unbalanced editorial decisions made by Huffington Post reporters and editors."

Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove told Politico in an e-mail that a recent Huffington Post story on the company's healthcare insurance benefits was "riddled with inaccuracies" including its assertion that the retailer had instituted a "new plan" to deny coverage to newly hired employees working fewer than 30 hours a week. The plan has been in place for nearly a year.

Mr. Hargrove wrote that a higher percentage of employees have signed up for coverage since new plans were put in place.

Peter Goodman executive business editor for The Huffington Post, told The Washington Post that he "pleads guilty to singling out the nation's single largest private employer for significant coverage." He said that other large employers including Apple and General Motors have their own landing pages on the site similar to Walmart.

While Walmart's action is not altogether unusual, refusing to speak with reporters at the site may prevent it from making its position clear on important stories in the future. It also potentially cuts off a line of communication with a group of consumers who may not hear the company's position elsewhere.

FINANCIALS:     [NYSE:WMT] [ ]

Discussion Questions:

Do retailers "cut off their nose to spite their face" when they refuse to speak with major media outlets? Aside from the silent treatment, are there other ways that retailers can address what they view as "unfair" coverage?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do you agree or disagree with Walmart's decision to not speak with The Huffington Post for future stories the company runs about the retailer?

Comments:

Yes, of course. Walmart needs to acknowledge that it is susceptible to the utmost scrutiny in the retail business and has to rise to the occasion. Skirting the media just makes them look guilty. Enough said.

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Debbie Hauss, Editor-in-Chief, Retail TouchPoints

President Obama made a decision essentially to boycott Fox News because of his perception that he would not get a fair hearing from them. I don't see this situation as much different...if Walmart does not feel it is being treated objectively by any particular media outlets, it is under no obligation to communicate with them. And I think it's arguable whether the Huffington Post is a "major media outlet" compared to (say) the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

All this being said, Walmart does have an obligation—to its employees, shareholders and other constituencies—to address concerns about its business practices in a forthright way, whether it's a question of benefits, overseas influence-peddling or some other matter.

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

They can address the "unfair" coverage by going out and making billions of dollars and returning it to shareholders. That's the best reply. Major media outlet? I'm sure by their own definition, The Huffington Post is.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research

You first have to believe that HuffPost is a legitimate major media outlet and that's not clear to journalists—it's big, but whether it is legitimate or a convenient home for bloggers is another issue. Social Psychology says never respond to propaganda, that you never win and often only strengthen the propaganda. So WM refusing to talk about bad reporting on HuffPost's part is a great strategy.

Now keep in mind, there will be those who will think this is an admission of guilt or a massive cover-up or some other nefarious action. They're going to think that no matter what WM says to whom, so it's worth ignoring them.

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Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

Look, Huffington Post isn't exactly the NY Times. It is a left leaning blog that grew up a bit under AOL but still is as much opinion as it is news. Walmart should seek outreach to shoppers via social media and to legitimate news outlets. My response to HuffPost would probably be to ask for a guest blog posting where it could explain completely and unfiltered, its POV.

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Joel Rubinson, President, Rubinson Partners, Inc.

I'm not so sure they really do hurt themselves all that much.

Times have changed significantly since I used to make a living scribbling down quotes. For example, when Jeff Zucker was recently named to head CNN he said one of his goals was to, " ... broaden the definition of what news is ..."

That's the problem.

Media audiences no longer want "news" as in a recitation of facts. Nor do they want first person observations of participants associated with those facts. No, what the public wants is overtly biased news "analysis," ala FOX TV, and talking heads interviewing other talking heads, ala CNN. Who would have thought that the best sources—no, make that the only quoted sources—on a story would be other reporters?

In a media environment where facts are irrelevant and bias is the basis of advertising up-charge, why not go the extra mile and only participate with media you believe will be sympathetic to your cause or, conversely, as evidenced by Mr. Goodman's remarks, not participate with media you believe is inherently biased against you?

So ... if you are Walmart ... given the current media landscape ... you probably aren't hurting yourself at all by cutting certain media out of your communication strategy. And, as an added bonus, all your "press" clippings will continue to tell you how well you're doing!

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Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

The Huffington Post is known for sensationalist and attention-grabbing headlines. While I wouldn't call it tabloid journalism, HuffPost does not exactly set high journalistic standards. I would object to a retailer not talking to the New York Times, but the Huffington Post? Move along, nothing to see here folks.

Fabien Tiburce, CEO, Compliantia, Retail Audit & Task Management Software

What Walmart decides to do will have no effect on the folks streaming into their stores every day, and they know that. No other retailer in the world has the impact on consumer loyalty like Walmart, and unless something catastrophic changes, this pretty much does nothing to hurt their future sales. The PR people at Walmart are savvy enough to handle this, and have a team of lawyers to go after anyone who puts out inaccurate information about them.

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

"Unfair" coverage had to happen to Walmart. They have become too big, too widespread and deeply entrenched into our daily lives not to engender attacks and hostility. That makes them red meat for major media outlets and ideological and dalliance opponents.

Today it is very difficult to effectively deal with the endless blogs and blows that modern technology allows everyone. This will continue and increase. So, retailers might, as Frank Sinatra crooned, "take the blows and do it my way."

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

No, they do not "cut off their nose," if they have made efforts to address their points with that media group, and common ground cannot be reached.

The Huffington Post often crosses political commentary with an economic issue. The health care positioning is one of those areas for the Huffington Post. That media company has an agenda, and they have the right to publish, text, broadcast, blog, etc., as they wish—at least until they may choose to subjugate their freedom to a government body, such as the U.N.'s current exploration of tighter controls on the Internet.

Major retailers need to continue to address many topics that are of importance to a variety of their constituents—associates, customers, vendors, shareholders, etc. The choice of media/medium that they use will vary depending upon issue or segments of audience. If the retailer has a position to which they feel they have to remain true, state it, and stick to their position.

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Roger Saunders, Managing Director, Prosper Business Development

The term major media outlet for the purpose of this discussion speaks to audience and not the perception of journalistic integrity. The Huffington Post attracts 39 million unique visitors on a monthly basis. That, in my mind, makes it a major media outlet.

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George Anderson, Editor-in-Chief/Associate Publisher, RetailWire LLC

We're a long way from the days where everyone watched one of three newscasts each evening. The public now has access to thousands of news outlets and can choose the ones that appeal to them. But companies, especially very large ones, risk losing touch if they exercise the same practice.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

Many retailers, especially large ones, pretty routinely don't talk to trade press. There are two reasons: first, there are so many magazines out there wanting access to marketing execs etc., that the retail personnel wouldn't have time to do their jobs if they talked to all of us. Second, trade press has a habit of paying its reporters/editors poorly. This results all too frequently in the reporters willing to take low salaries being inexperienced or hot-headed, and given to printing inaccurate/misunderstood info or taking pot shots.

Further, the line between advertising and editorial is far more often crossed in trade press than mainstream media, such that advertisers get preferred treatment in editorial. I've watched this decline my entire career, and it saddens me. It's not just trade press—all of journalism has spiraled downward into personality and opinion, rather than careful and truthful reporting of facts. It's undermining our democracy.

Okay, now I'll get down off my soapbox. Here's my reality as a trade magazine editor: When a retailer doesn't talk to me, I talk to the retailer's vendors, competitors, brokers, consultants and whoever I think is credible. No doubt that there's a different spin coming out of this than if I talked directly with the retailer. I've always felt stories were best and most accurate when I could draw from both the retailer and outside sources, and I think the retailer is better served that way also.

IMHO, because I do believe that George is right that Huffington Post is major media (albeit with more opinion than I would like!), Walmart should talk to them, even if it just means responding, in writing, to written questions via e-mail. And if there was a pattern of reporters getting things wrong or taking potshots that hurt the business, well, there are laws covering that.

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Warren Thayer, Editor & Managing Partner, Frozen & Refrigerated Buyer

Skirting certain media outlets is not going to stop the criticism. Walmart needs to stand up to the media, state their case accurately, then move on proving the points made.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Ignoring the HuffPost or Fox News or any other outlet won't hurt Walmart because any consumer with any awareness knows that journalism died when reporters began to think of and refer to themselves as "commentators."

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Ben Ball, Senior Vice President, Dechert-Hampe

I thought that was the job of the PR arm to talk to the media? Thus, they are admitting that they have failed to communicate and/or that the outlet is beyond redemption. Why or how they cannot resolve their differences is highly surprising.

David Slavick, Director, Loyalty & Retention, FTD.com

I doubt that Walmart will suffer from a lack of media coverage, even if it stonewalls Huffington Post. Obviously, it's such a big company that its actions are inherently newsworthy, and business writers will always be curious about it.

The question is, will we see a more concerted effort on the part of businesses to actively and openly favor journalists and outlets they think will treat them favorably, while they actively and openly shun voices that have proven critical—i.e., will business start acting like political parties? And is criticism, though painful, essential to a business' improvement; are painful conversations necessary to a business' responsiveness?

Vis-a-vis the posed question, retailers *need* to speak to the press. Trader Joe's has built an incredible brand while keeping journalists at arm's length. The key difference between Trader Joe's and Walmart, though, is that Walmart's customers come to the store to avoid the negative feedback associated with paying a little bit more elsewhere, while Trader Joe's customers come for a host of positive reasons, and are almost a cult, they're so devoted to the brand. So, Trader Joe's doesn't need the exposure that it doesn't want.

Mark Gardiner, Communications Strategist, revolutionaryoldidea.com

Walmart won't be hurt by this decision. The Huffington Post will. After all, who has the bigger audience?

I can imagine a scenario where various companies (brands, retailers, service providers) decide which media they will talk to and which media they won't.

The cultural divide in this country is made more painfully acute by biased media (on both sides of the aisle), which caters to one audience over another. Further, the audience can opt in or out of a media channel, choosing usually to reinforce only the views he or she already holds. In the brilliant book, "Going To Extremes," Cass Sunstein describes this phenomenon, "If someone tells you something you already know, you are likely to like yourself a bit better as a result!" And—there it is.

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Liz Crawford, VP, Strategy & Insights, Match Drive

Refusing to participate with a news outlet that has consistently demonstrated an ideological animus towards you is better than validating their distortions and egregious editing by participating in the hoax. Let them assassinate the company without your help.

Bill Emerson, President, Emerson Advisors

I see the response to Walmart's unhappiness with the Huffington Post (HP) as taking the high road. They could have bought AOL, fired everybody and transformed the real estate into free public parks as a demonstration of how they might be able to have a negative effect on HP. Instead they chose to abandon any further futile attempts to communicate their side of whatever the HP decided to publish about them. A good look at HP's demographics and regular reader count will show little reason for Walmart to have near or long term concern over this severed relationship.

'gjarnoldjr'

Who says Huffpost is a major media? Their following is relatively small compared to Wall Street Journal, NBC, CBS, Fox or ABC. Most media have taken a very slanted perspective so why talk to someone only out to get you or twist your words? Walmart is right on this one.

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W. Frank Dell II, CMC, President, Dellmart & Company

First, the Huffington Post, is not a major media outlet.

Secondly, it won't hurt them a bit.

With today's options for communication, Walmart themselves are a larger, more significant "media outlet" than most that even consider themselves as a "media outlet."

Did it hurt President Obama in his re-election by refusing to speak to a "media outlet" larger than ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN combined? The answer is obvious.

Whether it is a retailer or politician, they make their own choices. Walmart is certainly more powerful than all of the outlets combined that have been mentioned in either my comments or the previous. They have the means and the access to address coverage and create their own.

As far as "media" goes today, it's a whole new game.

If you have the means and the ability to communicate a message with all of the options available, refusing a fringe outlet like the Huffington Post doesn't even matter. It is so insignificant that likely one percent of Walmart's consumer market even knows it exists or has even heard of it.

'Scanner'

It is the retailer's choice to deal with the press as they wish. Serve the shopper, care for your associates, and tightly control inventory and promotions. That is their job as a proven, winning retailer that people like me depend on. The press? That is their choice.

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Tom Redd, Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

I think the first thing the retailer should do in the event of an "unfair" story is to try and redress things with the media outlet. If that fails, and there is a continued case of 'bias', then the retailer shouldn't bother wasting energy with that outlet. Additionally, there are so many means of disseminating messages today, cutting off one media outlet isn't likely to cause lasting harm. The risk, of course, is that the isolated media outlet may decide to escalate things unpleasantly.

'Opiner'

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