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Gini Dietrich

Walmart Fighting Hunger Campaign Is A PR Mess

By: Gini Dietrich | January 11, 2011 | 
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No matter how you feel about the way Walmart does business, you have to admire the fact that they always try new PR strategies before any0ne else does. Granted, they also tend to fall all over themselves in the process. But they are always one of the first major corporations to try new technologies.

Remember the “Walmarting Across America” blog in 2006? It featured the journey of a couple traveling from Las Vegas to Georgia in an RV, who captured lives and stories along the way, and parked for free in Walmart parking lots. They interviewed store clerks and executives, all who seemingly loved their jobs.

And then BusinessWeek discovered that, in fact, the couple had been hired to blog as a publicity stunt.

Cue a bunch of people being fired, including their PR firm. It was a disaster, but they’re lucky it didn’t happen into today’s blogosphere. It was too early … blogging was still really new back then and not many blogs existed. They were confined to the wrath solely of mass media (which is bad enough as it is).

Enter the 2010 holiday season”Fighting Hunger” campaign, which used Facebook and its own website to communicate the contest, but also to rally communities together to, well, fight hunger.

Again, a seemingly great idea.

Walmart hosted its first nationwide food drive at all of their stores. They called on their Facebook fans to select communities to receive $1.5 million in grants. They donated 65 refrigerator food trucks to Feeding America network food banks. And they helped The Salvation Army provide meals with a $1 million donation.

I can’t find how many families they helped with their nationwide food drive, but a donation of $2.5 million and 65 food trucks isn’t a small feat.

So how did it go so wrong?

Well, according to the Fresno Bee (the city that came in second; my hometown of Salt Lake City won the $1 million grant), it was a PR disaster.

From the story:

“So if good PR was the goal, Walmart stumbled and bumbled its way through this campaign. It started with the “FAQ” section of the contest site, which read like it was starving for a good copywriter.

Because the rules weren’t clear, all hell broke loose on Facebook during the last week of the contest. What exactly were you supposed to “like?” Links? Comments? Could people vote multiple times? Could people create new Facebook pages just to have a like-and-comment bonanza? Could people use technology tricks such as the “macro-like”? And, really, how many times did you refresh the Fighting Hunger site and ALL the votes were gone?”

It turns out that what they were communicating through their website and to the media and what they were putting on Facebook were two different things. And, one day they were saying people could vote more than once and the next they were going to remove the people who voted more than once or who used autobots to vote.

Their own FAQ, still on the Fighting Hunger website, contradicts what they have on Facebook and the criteria they used to determine the final winner.

Here is what I don’t get: How can Walmart not have marketing and PR professionals who are savvy enough to think through all of these things? They work with the best and the brightest in our field, yet no one seems to be minding the store.

We are but a speck on the radar of a gigantic corporation like Walmart, but they should have read our “Facebook Contests: Seven Tips for Flawless Execution.”

I think this is the pretty, shiny new penny syndrome.  Hey! Let’s give away $1 million on Facebook and see how it works.

Hello? Strategy? A full understanding of what works and what doesn’t work?

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

35 comments
keithprivette
keithprivette

The Silo Affect of big companies, period! Toss it over the wall. My department my goals are not your goals. I read a mashable article I know what I am doing. I read blogs how hard could this be. Bet the folks running it have no digital portfolio themselves and making an account and doing nothing with it doesn't count. You don't pay for professionals when you need help.

I personally don't like when companies fail at this stuff because it makes the boulder get a little heavier as you push it up the hill.

Does anyone know the people that ran the campaign? Wonder if they would be interested in flying some folks in to do a lessons learned. maybe they need a fresh set of eyes. How much potential loyalty and better work could be generated for this action?

I know if I was running a campaign or business engagement strategy and execution that fails for whatever reason I would extend this offer to people in communities such as this to do better the next time. It will help all things get better.

If Walmart flew you in and paid all your expenses to come in and evaluate what went wrong and to give your opinion potential solutions for next time or what is missing from the plan or strategy for the future team, tools, processes, and metrics would you take? I would!

RachelPoor
RachelPoor

Great post Gini and a good reminder for all of us working with brands to remember K.I.S.S. when it comes to promotions. Oh, and a solid strategy is a good idea too. :)

JamesDBurrell2
JamesDBurrell2

Gasp. I am a huge walmart shopper. But echoing what @FocusedWords @wabbitoid @Sushi said earlier, this does seem like a situation where there were a lot of Chiefs and too few Indians (the left not knowing what the right was doing euphemism had already been used). As far as its ability to gander good will for Wal-Mart corporate, I'm not sure this contest was a success -- at least not in my estimation. I was well aware of the contest but completely clueless as how to 'rightfully' help out my town, and like I said, I'm a regular shopper.

Seems like they just wanted to "Do" something to "Do" something without a well thought out plan. They did a wonderful thing, and I don't think that can be overshadowed here, but with a little more strategy and better execution, it could have been a far greater success.

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

While I love to hear how Walmart goofed, it appears as if it was their crack team of PR and Marketing pros who missed a step or two. What I found most useful about this post however was your link to your earlier post on making Facebook Contests work. Having tried a few for my clients, I can tell you they are a pain in the tush and most of mine were misses, rather than hits - esp when measured by how much people participated via FB. Offline, the contests generated buzz and brought people to the door, so in that regard, a hit...online, more of a miss. Thanks for the link!

FollowtheLawyer
FollowtheLawyer

My experience with cases like these -- direct and indirect -- is not that there are too few smart, capable and experienced people involved, but too many, with varying levels of influence/control and different objectives.

JohnNemoPR
JohnNemoPR

Great post. Shocks me that "big" company like WalMart can get such terrible PR advice/service. Just reaffirms what I learned transitioning from Journalism career into PR a few years back: There are PR people out there who don't know what the heck they are doing, but they talk a good enough game and the customer/client doesn't know enough to contradict them or call them out on their BS, so the client/customer forks over the money to the PR person/firm and chaos ensues. Then like any good PR person the PR firm can blame someone else or "spin" the outcome. Not sure if that happened here, but I've seen it happen first-hand. Buyer beware when it comes to PR services.

GordonMarcy
GordonMarcy

"Making it all work together." Synergy. What in the world is so hard to understand about that. Marketing 101. Maybe it's on purpose, to see what would happen. Nah! I wouldn't go so far as to say that WM will never get it. When you're one of the world's biggest corporations you can afford a few false starts. Hopefully, content about them is being monitored and someone of importance is reading it.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

This is no different from what Facebook goes through. They have select facts on a fact page that contradicts all their press releases. Obviously high schoolers help Zuckerberg when it comes to prep before being interviewed about privacy and all the rest of the BS.

Walmart isn't moving any sales needles via Social. They never will. Maybe it was the Agency of Record who decided to help with positive PR no matter how small they should do a Pepsi Refresh type project in hopes of free Impressions and PR? So many things are not repeatable. And so many companies bungle this type of stuff. I still call BS on General Mill's Yoplait Pink Top campaign for Breast Cancer now matter how much they have donated its a way to not have to pay out as much as they should with a high cost structure.

But since I refuse to shop at walmart ever I get excited when they blunder. LOL

nateriggs
nateriggs

Haha. Good post and good points. Keep in mind to that the wonderful Wal-Mart folks were responsible for the whole RV Wal-Mart paid bloggers debacle a few years back. I think that was probably agency driven, but it seems like whoever is advising them on strategy and execution still mastered how to make the social web work in their favor. With as much inconsistency of information as there was, seems like basic project management is illusive as well. If I were at in charge at Wal-Mart, I'd hire you guys today... :)

PJWright
PJWright

Good Morning Gini,

I suspect that Walmart has fallen into the age old problem of the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. For some unfathomable reason, companies do not have any respect for SM. They don't seem to realize that SM is not one thing and therefore they don't worry about coordinating any efforts. But then this is from my personal experience with my current client.

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

That was strangely heartening. First there's the schadenfreude of watching a big chain screw up, which I always like. But it makes me feel a lot better about this nagging feeling I have that I'm constantly repeating m'self as I try to refine how I communicate the need for strategy to my very small biz clients. If Wal*Mart can screw up big, there's a good reason they are confoozed.

We are all practitioners in a new field - one where the instant-cool factor tends towards sloppiness and impulse. I'm going to dig into this story a little more to see if we can get some really ugly details as to how they screw up this way. My journalistic senses are tingling! :-) Thanks!

TravisMClemens
TravisMClemens

I'm not sure I agree with you. Yeah, there were some details that didn't come off perfectly, but as far as PR goes, I think they showed exactly the kind of competition that garners good publicity. I had a lot of people who I know HATE Wal-mart who were not only "liking" it, but also encouraging (sometimes begging) their entire network of friends to do the same. Skeptics became advocates.

So I would say the goodwill they built up with people more than overshadowed the difficulties they faced throughout the competition.

keithprivette
keithprivette

@ginidietrich @dannybrown Yes the other affect I see is "Oh you have a facebook account and twitter wow can you run our social media or social business implementation" I am just amazed at the stories I hear about the people that have been put in charge of this stuff. But I guess if you dont see any value to the business why would you pay the money for professionals and actual business people that know how to get this executed.....Thank you for the reply! Have a great weekend! I so enjoy this blog!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@JamesDBurrell2 We've already had the Walmart vs. Target discussion and I know you make $7 sweat pants look like a million bucks (sigh). But I do agree with you that there were too many cooks in the kitchen.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@EricaAllison I don't think. though, it was external influences, do you? I think this is Walmart corporate, based on what I read. And...glad you found our mistakes helpful! :)

FollowtheLawyer
FollowtheLawyer

@ginidietrich Mistakes are inevitable -- and desirable if you want to be an innovator and achieve big results. What's not inevitable is that the mistakes are 1) the result of foreseeable problems 2) not easily correctible or 3) repeated.

In other words, be prepared to quickly and thoroughly address unforeseeable issues and don't make the same mistakes twice.

PJWright
PJWright

@ginidietrich @FollowtheLawyer If you keep the passion and fight the mundane, everyday, you will have made a giant step forward. The next tough part is making sure the passion lives on its own and not just in you.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@FocusedWords @FollowtheLawyer I suppose you're right. As we build Project Jack Bauer, with the goal of becoming a $50MM business, I think about this kind of stuff all the time. Perhaps I'll find a way to fight the trend.

PJWright
PJWright

@ginidietrich @FollowtheLawyer I believe that companies like Walmart continue to grow despite their screwups because they have reached the level of momentum that they will continue their expansion. At least for a while. Then the birds come home to roost (if you don't mind another euphemism.) I think one big lesson is to never get so comfortable that you believe you know exactly what to do and don't need to talk to any of your peers.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@FollowtheLawyer Yeah...I think you're right. How do businesses grow without these kinds of issues? Is it just inevitable?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@JohnNemoPR I agree that some PR firms don't what the heck they're doing and sell a potential client a bill of goods. But there are also plenty of clients who expect they're going to hire a PR firm and then achieve status and huge awareness in a month. And, when they don't, they fire the PR firm. We spend A LOT of time setting expectations with our clients. They look at some of the things we've done for other clients and say, "I want that" without fully realizing it's taken three years to get "that."

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@HowieG I really don't think it was the agency. I think it was internal.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@nateriggs Do you really think it was agency driven? Based on what I read, it sounded like an internal PR person was talking to the media and an internal marketing person was updating Facebook. That's more the departments working in silos instead of the agency not knowing what they're doing. I hope.

Sushi
Sushi

@FocusedWords I was also thinking this. Walmart is such a huge company that in order to get anything done, one has to jump through about ten different hoops, and hoop three could contradict hoop seven, which could contradict hoop five, and next thing you know, you get a mess like this campaign.

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

@FocusedWords That's sort of what I was thinking when I read this. Most of my clients are single prop / manager operations - and even when it's one person running the whole show SM is often seen as "different". Making it all work together seems to be the hard part, from the sign out on the sidewalk to the blog to the media buys and back to what is said when a customer comes in the door.

TravisMClemens
TravisMClemens

@ginidietrich
Yeah, I wasn't trying to change your opinion, and I agree, not all PR is good PR. But in this case with the amount of people who got actively involved and advocated for it and talked about it with their colleagues and friends, I would say the overall takeaway for the average person was, "Wow, Wal-Mart donated a lot of money to my community."

As PR professionals, we can learn from their shortcomings, but I think this accomplished their ultimate goal.

So let's agree, that we disagree. :)

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@TravisMClemens I think may have to agree to disagree. I'm not a believer in all PR is good PR. Sure, there were TONS of likes for this program, but it wasn't for Walmart, it was for the individual cities (according to the Fighting Hunger website). I'm not a Walmart fan, but I would certainly have liked one of the community pages to help them win the grant. Or I would have liked the Walmar page through the contest and then deleted them. They do have three million "fans" on their corporate site, but I'd love to know what the numbers were before this program. I don't know that the goodwill overshadows the PR issues. Maybe it does...and if it does, I'll come back here and tell everyone I changed my mind and agree with you. :)

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