Maybe big business is starting to get symmetrical PR

Three headlines in the MSM this past week have me wondering if global corporations are moving toward the 2-way symmetrical model of PR. Evidence is anecdotal at best, but these cases are worth discussing, since they show some of PR’s “bad guys” doing good things.

wally.jpgThe Wal-Mart Bonuses. I about fell over when I heard our old friend Big Wally is doling out $500 million in bonuses, most of it to hourly workers. Isn’t this the same company demonized by Barbara Ehrenreich in her populist book “Nickeled and Dimed”? The same company held up to ridicule in the “The High Cost of Low Price”? The same company that, in partnership with Edelman, pioneered the “flog”?

Before you nominate Big Wally for “Humanitarian of the Year,” be sure to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s story in the New Yorker. Richard Edelman calls the story “biased and one-sided,” and he’s right. But if you’re like most of us, you tend to believe the worst about Wal-Mart, thanks to the company’s record of consistently bad behavior.

Let’s move on to another retailer that makes its living in a big box.

homedepot.jpgHome Depot’s 15,000 new jobs. This essay from Scott Burns shows what can happen when corporate blunders attract the attention of a prominent business journalist. Home Depot had it coming, and Burns let ’em have it.

Under former CEO Bob Nardelli, Home Depot cut costs by cutting staff hours and customer service. Ooops! It led to a rash of customer complaints and a weak bottom-line performance that cost “Little Jack” his job. Don’t fret for Nardelli. He walked with a $210-million golden parachute, giving us another reason to curse big corporations — but that’s another story.

Home Depot says it’ll spend $300 million to staff up its stores — slightly more than it paid Nardelli to take a hike. The retailer will hire up to 15,000 additional workers, so service is sure to improve. Will the bottom line follow? We’ll see.

subaru.jpgSubaru’s Nonunion Shop. The third story is bad news if you’re a union supporter, good news if you’re a car manufacturer. The story focuses on Subaru, but it also tells how most Japanese automakers operating in the U.S. have seen little interest from employees in organizing unions. Why is that?

It’s a simple formula, really. Pay workers a fair wage with good benefits and, shazam! They come to work on time, they work hard, they produce quality cars — and they don’t show up at union organizing rallies.

Officials of the UAW see a conspiracy, but I don’t. Disclosure: I’m a union member and I own three Subarus.

So, is big business becoming enlightened when it comes to fair treatment of workers? Or have I simply cited three examples of companies that will do whatever it takes to survive — even if it means being nice to the peons?

In the end, does the intent of these companies really matter? Or should we simply focus on their deeds? Wal-Mart employees get a bonus, Home Depot workers get more hours, and Subaru drivers get great cars made by happy employees.

So, as I ask in the headline, is big business starting to get it, or am I just a dumbass optimist?

The symmetrical model of PR is easy to defend from an ethical perspective. You know, “respect for persons,” the “Golden Rule,” and all that. But I’ve not seen overwhelming evidence that symmetrical practice leads to measurable behaviors or bottom-line returns.

Thanks to its cut-throat nature, capitalism doesn’t always reserve a seat at the table for conscience and morality. So the challenge to PR remains a tough one: How do we convince management that the 2-way symmetrical model is good for business AND good for the bottom line?

If Wal-Mart and Home Depot will lead the way, our job gets a whole lot easier.


6 Responses to Maybe big business is starting to get symmetrical PR

  1. Eric says:

    The story says Wal-Mart has always doled out bonuses, they’ve just now made it public.

    Good for Wal-Mart though. You’re right Bill, if you don’t want unions, keep the employees happy, and Wal-Mart seems to have gotten that.

    I still look for the chains used to shackle the employees everytime I go there. Haven’t seen them yet, so the store must be doing something right.

    Now, the union guys won’t comment favorably. Their agenda doesn’t actually include employee benefits, unless the employees are paying dues to get them.

    This also comes from a former and current union member.

    You know a Wal-Mart post will almost always elicit a response from me.

    P.S. Wal-Mart increased its charitable giving last year by 10%. The bastards!

  2. Andy Curran says:

    And then there’s Circuit City! To wit:

  3. Stacy Wessels says:

    Thanks, Andy. I was just reading about CC’s PR bungle. “We want your money, but we really don’t care to provide customer service.” Maybe those Geico cavemen could do some recruitment ads for CC. Hmmm… Nah. They probably make more than min wage.

  4. Jean says:

    I work for one of the new Home Depots in the Atlanta area, and these managers keep cutting more and more hours. They also don’t have a clue how to manage a business, but prefer to “manage” the peons by harassment. I would say you might look for some discrimination suits in the near future against Home Depot.

  5. Jean says:

    I notice that although Frank Blake has promised to “beef up” the staff on the floors, Home Depot (and especially the one I work for) is only doing what it has to in order to maintain employees. They continue cutting hours and leaving departments uncovered during many peak hours, and they continue harassing employees with points for such things as “inexcused absences” when such absenses were not an option for the employees. Working for the Home Depot I’m now with has turned me totally against this giant coporation. Others I know feel the same way, and all that came from the store I came from to this “new” monster are totally disgusted. Wish I could find the CNN story about an employee who sued over points. These managers are on POWER trips. Home Depot is NOT a good company to even CONSIDER in your job searches.

  6. Jean says:

    Home Depot had a (mandatory) store meeting yesterday. For a CHANGE, we got a survey to fill out and return with an “anonomymous certification”, such survey (the first feed back available to us since 2004) to be calculated by an independant outside source. It DOES, however, ask your gender, race and status, i.e., manager, department head, hourly employee, etc., but only gives the options of 1-5 in “X” boxes, 1 being the lowest, 5 the highest, to a variety of questions. I hope everyone was as honest with this as I was. If they were honest – according to the “private” opinions at the store where I work – then Home Depot will no longer be able to claim “employer of choice” or much of any of their so-called “choice” claims. Frank Blake addressed the survey letter with, “We want your honest feedback” (paraphrased).
    I hope this brings Home Depot down to reality, as it certainly is NOT what Home Depot was 7-8 years ago, and what once may have been a “dream” job has flipped to the other side of that dream and become a “nightmare” job. In the last week, the store I’m in has terminated several employees and had several offer resignations based on the situation which is SO FAR BELOW desireable. Sure would like to hear from some of you folks out there with your comments, as customers have given me a lot of negative feedback too. The more the customers complain about lack of coverage, the worse Home Depot gets – with only EMPTY promises.

    Thank you for allowing me to vent.

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