BENTONVILLE, Ark. — The brawl between Wal-Mart and its union critics is escalating as groups on both sides, fighting over whether the world’s largest retailer is good or bad, launched attack-style Web sites maligning each other’s motives and politics.
More than a year after unions launched two political-style campaign groups attacking Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for what they say are low wages and skimpy benefits, the language is turning meaner and more personal.
Paidcritics.com was started last week by Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group funded primarily by Wal-Mart, to reveal what it described as “the real motives of the union leaders behind the campaign against Wal-Mart.”
It characterized one of its leading critics, Andrew Grossman of union-backed Wal-Mart Watch, as “a political operative with a checkered past” in a section called “Paid Critic of the Week” that also lambasted Wayne Hanley, head of the Canadian chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
The site is part of Wal-Mart’s aggressive defense since last year against its increasingly organized critics. Wal-Mart won’t say how much it is spending, but it has set up a political campaign-style “war room” staffed by consultants, hired Washington D.C. lobbyists, formed the Working Families group and created another Web site called Wal-Mart Facts.
In a letter to Democratic members of congress about Wal-Mart’s efforts, WakeUpWalMart said the attacks were reminiscent of a campaign by a pro-Bush group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that questioned Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam War military record during the 2004 presidential race.
Corporate reputation management expert Steven Silvers, who has worked for 25 years advising public and private companies on strategic communications, called paidcritics.com “a name-calling, nastily aggressive little Web site” that marked an escalation in Wal-Mart’s battle with critics.
“The company’s latest move comes right out of the Swift Boat playbook. And it could become standard procedure for other corporations that find themselves in the center of public controversy,” Silvers wrote in his blog Scatterbox. Silvers said neither he nor his firm, Denver-based GBSM, Inc., do any work for the unions or Wal-Mart.
Experts say there is no clear winner yet in the public relations battle. Union groups decry what they call Wal-Mart’s low wages, poor health benefits and destruction of local economies. Wal-Mart says it creates jobs, provides low-cost insurance for employees and saves the average family $2,300 a year by keeping prices low.
“The jury is still out,” said Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication and reputation management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.