UPDATED (with publisher's response, at bottom)
The president of the National Newspapers Association has written a whiny letter to Wal-Mart. Mike Buffington relates a call from a PR person who
advised me that Wal-Mart representatives were "available for interviews" about the firms nationwide campaign to "set the record straight about the facts about Wal-Mart."
In addition to co-owning and operating four community newspapers in Northeast Georgia, I also currently serve as president of the National Newspapers Association. As both a newspaper publisher and as a spokesman for several thousand community newspapers in America, I want to let you know that I, and many of my fellow publishers, are insulted by this Wal-Mart PR effort.
The letter's logic runs roughly as follows:
1) Wal-Mart is under attack for its business practices.
2) Wal-Mart wants newspapers to cover its side.
3) But Wal-Mart is grossly stingy because it does little or no newspaper advertising.
4) So if Wal-Mart wants coverage it should buy advertisements.
I'm not a fan of Wal-Mart. I refuse to shop there specifically because of its business practices, and I found its recent newspaper ad campaign (which ignored the smaller papers Buffington is trying to defend) almost totally unpersuasive.
(To see the company's press release, go to this page, click on News Releases, then General News and the release titled, "Wal-Mart Launches Nationwide Campaign to Set the Record Straight." For reasons I can't fathom, Wal-Mart's site offers up on-the-fly Java server pages that make it impossible to link directly to the release.)
But Buffington may not have realized how insulting his letter is to the people who do journalism -- and to his customers. This letter strongly implies a "you pay or we don't cover you" attitude. What he calls "free PR" is nothing of the kind. It's one part of a story, and it's worth covering no matter who puts the ads in the paper.
The public is already skeptical of newspaper publishers' motives. It's hard enough to be a reporter these days, but letters like this one give credence to people's more cynical assumptions.
The issue here isn't news vs. advertising; it's simply an attempt to manipulate PR in community newspapers.
At the corporate level, Wal-Mart has made it clear that it does not see value in advertising in community newspapers. Can't argue with that, it's their money and they've been successful without us.
But to take that attitude, then expect community newspapers to be a free tool in a political PR campaign, smacks of corporate arrogance.
Wal-Mart could have bought 3 page ads in our newspaper and I still wouldn't run their PR stuff. It isn't relevant to our market. And I can't be bought, period.
But ask yourself this: Wal-Mart did buy page ads in major metro newspapers across the nation with their PR message and many of those newspapers did write high-profile news articles about the firm's PR campaign.
Was there a tacit link between those news stories in metro newspapers and the Wal-Mart ads?
Probably not, but it's interesting that Wal-Mart paid to run its message in those urban markets, many of which don't have Wal-Mart stores in their core area, but they didn't see value in running the ad in suburban and rural markets, the heartland of their company.
Why was that?
My theory is that this PR campaign is really about Corporate America talking to Corporate America. The goal isn't to communicate with Wal-Mart customers in the rural and suburban areas stores are located, but rather to sell their PR to opinion-makers at the state and corporate levels. Talking with customers is, I think, a secondary consideration.
That's fine, but the company shouldn't have insulted community newspapers in the process. Don't go to the metro areas and buy advertising in big corporate newspapers, but expect mom-and-pop newspapers to dish out the same stuff as free PR. We have higher standards than that.
Perhaps Wal-Mart didn't intend to send such an arrogant message, but it did. And frankly, I don't think very many community newspaper publishers in America have much respect for a firm that looks down its corporate nose at our profession.