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?

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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