Mona Williams may have the toughest PR job around: As Wal-Mart's VP of corporate communications, she must defend the world's biggest company — and one of the most private — against charges of unfair labor practices and economic tyranny. The retailer has launched "reputation" ads featuring employees and has begun responding more to critical press. Williams discussed the new glasnost.
Fast Company: How do you deal with criticism?
Williams: First, we determine if the criticism is valid or if it's generated by people who are simply looking out for their own self-interest. We've found that there is some of both. Where it is valid, we learn from it and become a better company. . . . We became the number-one company on the Fortune 500 two years ago. We became an especially big target at that point, and we spent a few months just saying, "Whoa, what is this? This isn't right."
FC: How do you think TV viewers react to ads about satisfied employees paid for by Wal-Mart?
Williams: Our reputation is that we are a very honest, ethical company, and our associates tell our story better than anyone. We're encouraging them to do just that. I think they're very believable.
FC: So individual employees are being called upon to communicate to the public?
Williams: They're not being called upon. So much of the negative criticism is simply inaccurate, that it hurts our feelings.
I mean, it hurts when you hear it. And then it makes us angry. I get lots of email from associates asking how they can help.
FC: There's a movement to unionize employees at Wal-Mart. How do you think those employees talk about their experience?
Williams: First of all, I think you're falling for some of what you read in the press. Our wages and our benefits are very competitive. . . . In addition to our wages, we offer 401(k)s, profit sharing, company-paid life insurance, bonuses, and more than half of our associates own Wal-Mart stock through a discounted purchase plan. Last year we promoted more than 9,000 people from hourly jobs to salaried management jobs. So we have a very good employment story to tell, and that's why our folks are happy to tell it.
FC: A Wal-Mart PR rep said recently, "We all want to defend our company." Is Wal-Mart on the defensive?
Williams: I think defensive, um, has negative connotations. I think we're all eager to tell the story proactively. I would not consider that defensive in any way.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.