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Wal-Mart invites the media home
Retailer to hold first-ever media event with top execs as it strives to rebuild its reputation.
February 23, 2005: 7:23 AM EST
By Parija Bhatnagar, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - In its ongoing mission to polish up its image, Wal-Mart for the first time ever is inviting members of the media for a special two-day meet-and-greet at its home base in Northwest Arkansas.

The invitation, which was also extended to this reporter, stated that the event is part of the company's "continuing efforts to ensure that [the media] has accurate information on Wal-Mart."

To that end, Wal-Mart (Research) is lining up the big guns for the April 5-6 conference, among them chief executive Lee Scott, chief financial officer Tom Schoewe and president of Wal-Mart Stores Mike Duke, for individual presentations.

Additionally, Wal-Mart, will also hold a rare question-and-answer session with the press, a format that's usually reserved for its annual analysts and shareholder meeting.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity to come hear our top executives share their views of our company, our business and our industry in a format specifically designed for journalists," the invitation said.

Bill Dreher, analyst with Deutsche Bank, said the media "smoozefest" marks a definite break with tradition for the thus far media-shy company.

"Historically, Wal-Mart has only been concerned about the consumer. But 12 years ago, Wal-Mart began to woo the investor and sponsored fieldtrips to their headquarters. These were tremendously successful," Dreher said.

More recently, the world's largest retailer has been on an aggressive campaign to court the media in a bid to rebuild its reputation after a string of damaging publicity.

For instance, Wal-Mart, which employs 1.3 million workers and is the nation's largest private-sector non-union employer, has been a lightening rod for dozens of lawsuits against it alleging wage-and-hour violations and gender discrimination.

Last year, Wal-Mart was accused of allegedly hiring illegal immigrants through a contractor and underpaying those employees. And it continues to face opposition in its efforts to expand its big-box format into urban areas.

Under fire or its employment practices, Wal-Mart recently announced it was overhauling its pay and promotion policies.

It also attempted to answer its critics by launching a nationwide media blitz in January, including ads in more than 100 newspapers, that touted the company's wages, employee benefits, economic impact and charitable contributions.

Dreher, however, is more impressed with Wal-Mart's latest effort. "Was it Orson Welles who said 'never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the drumfull?'"

"Wal-Mart is a more mature company today and is showing its willingness to be more open with the press," Dreher said. "From investors' point of view, this is very good news. All the negative publicity has pressured the stock. Maybe this move will help take away some of that 'headline' risk acting on the stock."

Richard Hastings, retail economist with Variant Research, said it remains to be seen if Wal-Mart will actually become more transparent in the long run.

"This is a very protective company and rightfully so," he said. "I don't think that by reaching out to the media, Wal-Mart is signaling that it's on the path to becoming culturally very different. Wal-Mart will continue to be secretive and protect its business."  Top of page

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