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Walmart’s Fighting Hunger PR stunt becomes a PR mess

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It was only fitting that when Walmart announced the winner of the Fighting Hunger Together contest on Wednesday afternoon, a big headline anointed Memphis as the winner while the blurb beneath it explained why Salt Lake City won.

As we all know now, Salt Lake City really did win the million dollar prize. The Memphis thing was just a glitch on the Walmart site. But it was a glitch that was emblematic of the contest as a whole. It displayed something that many of us who spent last week feverishly clicking away already knew — the way Walmart handled this contest was one big ol’ mess.

This is not a “boo hoo, we didn’t win” post. It’s not sour grapes. As messy as the contest was, I’m still quite thankful for two outcomes: (1) That Walmart is giving us $100,000. It will certainly help our community. (2) That our community rallied behind this contest and came together to make Fresno a better place in the process. But that doesn’t mean Walmart should get a pass for the way it handled this.

This contest was — first and foremost — about good PR for Walmart. It helped needy people in the process, sure, but it was really about getting Walmart’s name all up in your Facebook feed. I’d be willing to bet that someone at Walmart HQ was hoping this would help turn around Walmart’s not-so-wonderful image just a tad.

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.

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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?

Local media did its job and asked the questions, but it wasn’t getting a lot of answers from Walmart. Or clear ones. When it did, it seemed like Walmart would contradict itself later on Facebook.

From Tuesday’s Bee:

A Walmart official said Monday that voting more than once “absolutely” is allowed. In fact, said Walmart spokeswoman Tiffany Moffatt, the “frequently asked questions” section on the contest’s website offers six ways to vote for the city of choice.

Maybe they were asking, ’cause the FAQ wasn’t very clear. Duh! Then on Thursday, Walmart wrote this in a Facebook comment thread — notice, not anywhere prominent, just in a comment thread:

The integrity of this initiative is very important to us and we have been working with Facebook to track votes very closely since the campaign launched on Nov. 15. and will continue to do so until … the campaign’s end. Only valid votes will be counted — bot-like applications, fraudulent profiles and other misuse of this functionality will be deleted and not factored into the final counts. We will not make any decisions regarding the winning cities or nonprofits that will be funded until we are sure that the final vote tallies are correct.

Then on Friday, it wrote something about only three “likes” counting, which sent the Fresno Hunger Fighters into a tizzy, expecting that all of their clicking and commenting would be disqualified:

The integrity of this initiative is very important to us and we are working closely with Facebook to ensure that only legitimate, manual votes made by individual users are tallied. Facebook is able to access the analytics behind each city and pull out unique ‘Likes’ per city and will choose a winner accordingly. We will be calculating the final tally only on unique Likes, which we will be capping at 3 Likes per user (Like, Share, and Comment).

By the end of the contest, it was fairly clear that both Fresno and Salt Lake City had been using fake profiles and bot-like applications. So nobody really knew what to expect from Wednesday’s results.

Maybe when Walmart took away all the “cheating” Fresno would be back at No. 1, because that’s where we were before Salt Lake City’s out-of-nowhere surge. Maybe both cities would get knocked out of the No. 1 spot. Maybe Salt Lake City was ahead fair and square.

What made the most PR sense for Walmart at that point was to give both cities a million dollars. An additional $900,000 is not much to a company that had net sales of 405 billion in 2010. It certainly would have paid for itself in goodwill PR. Walmart could then be the company that went above and beyond. That would help its image, right? Maybe get this campaign on The Today Show or something?

But Walmart didn’t do that. In fact, after making all that fuss about the “integrity” of the contest, it didn’t dock any city any votes. Fresno and Salt Lake City had just about the same number of votes when the final results were released today as they did when the contest ended on Friday. In fact, I believe Salt Lake City had MORE.

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And after all this fuss, Walmart just announced the winner at noon on its Web site? Where’s the big reveal? Where’s the “move that bus” moment?

Where’s a Walmart suit showing up in the winning city, smiling for pictures in front of a Walmart store? Or sticking an apple down some impoverished kid’s throat?

That’s good PR, right?

Just to recap: Walmart gave us confusing rules. Changed its interpretation of them a few times. Told us a bunch of votes would not count. Then ended up counting them anyway. Finally, when it came time to announce the winner, it briefly announced the wrong city.

It’s within reason that Walmart got caught off guard and was overwhelmed by how much interest and enthusiasm this contest generated. It was, after all, the contest’s first year. That might explain some of the technical glitches and confusing rules, but not Walmart’s inconsistent messaging.

You’d think for a company as big as Walmart, they’d have marketing and PR folks savvy enough to prevent things from getting so sloppy. Apparently not.

One thing I’m pretty sure of at this point: If I were ever giving away $1.5 million dollars, I’d do it much more clearly and concisely than Walmart did. And I’m just some guy — not the world’s largest public corporation.

Responses to "Walmart’s Fighting Hunger PR stunt becomes a PR mess"

Debbie Zamora says:

Put perfectly, Mike!

Mike,
Great article! Excellent insight. I agree totally.
Thanks for your observations and research of this issue.

Dave

Barbara McComb says:

Well said ~

james says:

Okay, I’ll pinch hit for the other team this inning.

I get what you’re saying, Mike, and agree that Walmart would (should) have looked golden by chipping in another $900k. We’d be kissing their feet right now (and for that reason, I’m glad they didn’t).

There’s no question that this was messy from the start, but that’s because they treaded into new territory: By using Facebook to measure support, Walmart gave up a lot of control – and a lot of information. I’m sure the FB execs were cooperative…to an extent. (I mean, we know how easy it is to contact FB, right?) All those numbers are stored in another company’s database, so there’s going to be lag time and glitches as they’re beamed over the internet to the Walmart site.

What I appreciate about this method, though, is that it didn’t give Walmart a way to contact me (well, they did, but that’s another story). I didn’t have to give up my email address, or subscribe to future updates from a company I’d rather avoid, even when they’re waving $1.5M in the face of those in need.

From the PR side of things, maybe it just wasn’t worth the additional funds to worry about the image in one community.

Chukknob says:

Another thing is clear… Nearly every for-profit (and sometimes not-for-profit) business that gives away money is looking for p.r. In this case Walmart found a way to turn it into bad p.r. They also found a way to turn current shoppers into former shoppers and solidify why a lot of people hate the thought of even shopping there.

Mike Z says:

Great article…well put!

Mike Oz says:

You’re right that it only really matters to one community, but I think the other side of that coin is that if Walmart DID give more money than expected, it gives them some additional PR legs on this. Like I said, maybe they get on a national morning show. Maybe they get into USA Today. Maybe it turns a local/regional story into national story, a story that makes Walmart look good.

I think that whole thing was just one misstep, though. What annoyed me most was how they never REALLY explained anything about how the contest worked. They had ample opportunity.

Bryan Harley says:

It doesn’t really matter at this point, but I wish Walmart would respond to why the vote counts didn’t change at all when they assured everyone that bots wouldn’t count, fake profiles won’t count, and it would only be 3 unique likes per profile.

I mean… you lied, Walmart. What happened?

FB was like: I ain't reconciling no votes! says:

Thank you for the rundown, Oz. It’s wonderful to bring some clarity to all this.

However, I don’t think this is a huge PR fail on Walmart’s part, because:

1. Giving $1m to charity is not a national news story. Even with a “big reveal,” this story was only going to be carried in the benefiting cities and nearby markets, so this fail really only affects Fresno.

and

2. Fresno is one of the poorest cities in the nation, so let’s face it: people here are still gonna shop at Walmart, PR fail or no.

james says:

Only in one community, though… And, historically, they’ve given far greater reasons for consumers to turn their backs on the company, yet they continue to grow.

james says:

I know, just thinking through other angles. I think they failed to communicate throughout a lot the process – for example, even still we don’t know how or when that money will show up, or what organizations will be able to put it use. Had they established open lines of communication, they might have gotten far more than publicity; they could have also gained at least some consumer trust.

Jennifer says:

Agreed! I’d been following this contest and “sharing” it on FB (though I didn’t know until last week those each counted–maybe–as likes) since pretty early on. Disclaimer, I’m a Walmart hater and loan my copy of “The High Cost of Low Prices” to anyone who is unlucky enough to start a conversation about them with me. I was skeptical about the contest, but figured “hey, free money”, not like we needed to shop there to participate, so I did…skeptically.

First the talk of Walmart being vague about where exactly they were going to give this money. And then the whole fiasco with the constant like+comment+sharing last week and of course the macro-like campaign (I jumped right onboard but with many of the more prominent pages in Fresno advising against the macro at first, those of us using it didn’t make much of a dent while SLC’s lead grew bigger). Once that comment on their site about 3 max votes started circulating so many of us gave up the mass-voting to try and spread the word to new voters, hoping our “integrity” and adherence to the rules would ultimately prevail. I should’ve known better than to trust Walmart.

Moral of Walmart’s story, use any means necessary to get ahead…the good news for them is they didn’t lose a customer in me because I never was one to begin with.

*I’m sure this sounds WAY more negative than I truly am, I’m appreciative of the $100K and the awareness it’s raised in the valley with new local campaigns to raise funds and such. Overall this was a very positive thing for Fresno!

Donald Munro says:

There are lots of folks out there fond of hopping on the “let’s cut government and let private enterprise do itself” bandwagon. When they do so in the future, I’ll use this Walmart debacle as Exhibit A of why that’s such a bad idea. This was about as amateurishly run of an operation as you can get, right down to the “Memphis wins” moment. But what do you expect? Walmart is notorious for its frenzied-cost-cutting, screw-the-supplier, squeeze-every-dollar-it-can attitude. Why should anything be different when running a public relations campaign? And for Walmart to announce that it would carefully examine votes for fraud and then simply ignore the issue altogether was more than incompetent — it was outright fraud in itself.

I agree with Mike about the good that this contest produced, and I’m glad to see the way our community came together. But I have fundamental concerns with a program that, as one reader put it, sets up a “blood-sport” competitive mentality when it comes to hunger. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The whole thing is a scenario from a dystopian near-future novel.

I also agree — but only partly — with people who say we should be thankful for the $100,000 we got. There’s no need to grovel, folks, as if we’re peasants scrambling for scattered coins tossed from the walls of the palace. Walmart has amassed a formidable fortune by playing capitalistic hardball — which is what the system encourages. There’s certainly no crime in that. But in doing so it has contributed to the decimation of many small businesses, laid waste to many a small city’s downtown area, helped drive down salaries and contributed to a greater inequality between the poor and the wealthy in this country — peaking in 2007 with the richest 1% of Americans holding an astounding 23% of the wealth — than at any time since the Great Depression. Heck, yes, Walmart needs to assist the hungry in this country, if only to ensure its customers can afford to shop there.

And, yes, I’m thankful for the money, but I’m also a little sad that we live in a society that pits hungry cities against each other.

OK, deep breaths … that’s out of my system. Now I’m going to the fightinghungerfresno.org site to make a donation.

Spurs O'Fire says:

While I agree that the contest was handled like a bunch of junior high kids were running it, I can’t jump in and say that Walmart should throw in more money. Instead, they need to be more transparent about how they handled the voting. What decisions did they make? How many votes were counted? Did they allow “bot” votes through (were they even able to discern between “bot” and “non-bot” votes?)? This is the responsible way to handle things. FAIL for not being clear on their final decisions.

As for more money? Why not say that Microsoft should throw in $900K as good PR? Or maybe GM should do it? AIG? Halliburton? The Tea Party? Steve Jobs or Al Gore? They would all come out smelling like roses! Get some great national press.

You simply cannot fault Walmart for only giving away $1.5 million. That’s what they set out to do. That’s what they are doing. None of the other companies or individuals listed above gave away $1.5 million. Should they be faulted?

Fresno is not entitled to anything more than the $100K we earned through the flawed contest. If only 1/3 of our population donated 10 bucks, we’d have our million.

Mike Oz says:

Just to be clear: I’m not saying Fresno is entitled to more of Walmart’s money. I’m saying that since this was a PR game all along, the best PR move would have been to just give out another $900K.

I also think you’re right about that it would be good PR for some other company — *cough* Target — to step up now and says, “Walmart didn’t really do a great on this contest, so here, Memphis, here’s some money for you. You need it.”

*I pick Memphis because they had the highest need on Walmart’s scale but didn’t get anything.

I enjoy me some good ol' fashioned Walmart bashing :) says:

I hate Walmart as much as the next guy.

But I also hate Facebook, and we can’t blame Walmart alone for the mishandling of votes.

Walmart may have had every intention of eliminating the fraudulent votes, but in trying to do that, FB may have said: “Woah, woah woah…. We can’t do that, and it’s not our job to do that. You’re on your own, suckers.”

In which case, what is the cheapest, most cost-cutting-est retailer in the U.S. going to do?
They’re not to a GD thing, which is why the totals didn’t change over almost an entire week of vote rectifying.

Arkayz says:

Were we expecting different from Walmart of all companies? I mean really?

Stacy says:

Perfectly put Donald, and Mike. This whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth, no pun intended.

Paul F says:

Don writes “There are lots of folks out there fond of hopping on the “let’s cut government and let private enterprise do itself” bandwagon. When they do so in the future, I’ll use this Walmart debacle as Exhibit A of why that’s such a bad idea.”

You can’t be serious – with the level of fraud, abuse, corruption, incompetence and the pension fiasco to name just a few government “flaws” that do nothing but waste BILLIONS of our dollars, you use a Facebook contest as proof of a private enterprise failure?

Not a day goes by that we aren’t reading a story about some government agency or employee failing the citizens, committing crime, and wasting our dollars. Our government defrauds us daily.

Having some experience trying to work with our own local planning department and reading of their fat 6-figure salaries in a recent Bee article only reinforces what a joke government really is.

Did Walmart handle this poorly? Sure. Who did it hurt? Only themselves. Are they honoring their deal? Yes. Are hungry being fed? Yes.

Sorry Don, you got this 100% wrong.

Silverlinin says:

I just wonder where the Walmart Foundation gets it money. In 2009 they had $51 million in assets. I wonder if any of this money is a result of lawsuits against Walmart. Quite common for corporations to establish a foundation as a means to pay out settlement fee assessed during lawsuits. Just wondering. Might be money illegally made off the backs of those very people (low income / working poor / hungry) they claim to be helping.
http://www.accessphilanthropy.com/funderinnews.php?funderID=36

Eileen Walsh says:

Thanks Mike Oz for explaining what happened – I was here clicking away but not sure what was happening or, at the end, what had happened. And thanks Don Munro for venting feelings like my own. Groveling. Fighting against other hungry people. Was this what it felt like in one of those bread riots just prior to the 1787 French Revolution? Is this a hint of what German hyperinflation felt like when, in 4 months (July-November 1923), the cost of living went up by 560,000,000,000%? Are those paths we want to follow? Is Wal-mart’s success and way of ‘sharing’ it leading us in the direction of those paths?

Donald Munro says:

Paul, I agree there is fraud and abuse in ANY human endeavor — it’s part of being human. But our government, however imperfect, is subject to due process — and accountability. The private sector isn’t.

B Price says:

I agree with what Don said: “There’s no need to grovel, folks, as if we’re peasants scrambling for scattered coins tossed from the walls of the palace.” I also agree with you, Mike, that the PR part of things was handled badly–although I wonder how upset the people of Fresno would be if we had gotten the money and SLC lost. After all, their voters were just as unclear on the rules as we were–heck, maybe the macros were okay.

The problem, in my mind, lies deeper than the botched PR. The problem lies in pitting the hungry against each other. The problem lies in people getting all worked up about clicking “like” and convincing themselves that their slactivism substitutes for the real thing. The problem lies in a noble one-off effort to raise some food for the hungry on Tuesday, after which most of the non-hungry people of Fresno will go back to ignoring the problem.

When I was a kid, before food stamps or EBT existed, we lined up for what we called “the surplus” (government food). When it ran out and/or the welfare check was gone, we went hungry. Whatever anyone might personally think about welfare (or being poor or unemployed), no child in this country should be going hungry. Having lived through it, I can tell you that it’s not a problem that is solved by a week of mouse-clicking or by a day of well-meaning people clearing out their pantries of dusty cans of beets. It’s not a problem that can be solved by one corporation’s spit-in-the-ocean $1,000,000. It’s a problem that deserves sustained attention and effort. If everyone offered $5 a week to the food pantries or volunteered a few hours a month, it would go a lot further toward feeding the hungry than anything we’ve done lately.

Paul F says:

Don, I must again disagree. If government were accountable, how do you explain decades of fraud, corruption and waste? 3,4, 5 decades of “government” and trillions spent on education and feeding the poor to use just two examples, and by any measure they are still failing.

At the ripe old age of 51 I do not see 1 example in those years of government getting it right, getting better at what they do, and as for accountability, unless we catch them – and often times even when we do, our money is gone, they are off on fat retirement plans and we are left holding the bag. Charlie Rangle is but one recent example, the city of Bell, the UC executives, etc… between the entitlement attitude, poor work product and outright criminal behavior, government has next to zero accountability, and anyone involved in government would confirm this fact.

Private enterprise on the other hand is completely accountable to those who pay them – as it should be. Sometimes it takes a bit, but I’ll take a greedy CEO any day over a lying thieving bureaucrat or politician – at least with the CEO you know exactly where you stand. Government seems to have become the art of deception.

Spurs O'Fire says:

It would only be bad PR (some say there is no such thing) for anyone or any company to step up and say “Walmart didn’t really do a great job on this contest.” Giving away $1.5 mill is doing a great job, regardless of the wreckage. 6 cities will now have more than they had.

Should any generous person/entity want to join Walmart in giving–doing something that neither are forced or asked to do, that would be great PR. JOINING them in their good deed.

What Walmart SHOULD do is be clear with all of us how they made their vote counting decisions. That’s all. They did not do a great job of keeping the participants aware of how things worked.

Heather says:

Don? Who the hell is Don? Did Donald Munro join a bowling team since I’ve been gone?

Leo says:

Walmart is good……forrrrrrr me to poop on.

Don’t forget FB has a chance to chime in here as well and make themselves look realllllly good. Whatever with what happened to Walmart, but what will they do so that stupid sh!t like this doesn’t happen again. It started to feel like some kind of rich corporation version of bumbfights for cities. No slight to Fresno intended, or to SLC for that matter. But they basically got people to fight over money.

Whatever man, done with Walmart. Deleting you from my contacts

C'mon Fresno! says:

I’m disappointed. If half the people that pushed this thing so hard on Facebook would have donated just $10 instead of spinning their wheels getting other people to “like” the Walmart page, the $1 million grand prize wouldn’t have come close to what the Fresno community could give (and still can) on their own. Let’s stand together and if you really want to make a difference for this particular cause without the BS of interpreting rules and regulations, then lets move forward, thank Walmart for their start to the giving, pull out your purse or wallet, donate ourselves and put our money where our mouth is. Now that’s something to “like” as a community!

tlb73737 says:

Nicely put Mike.

Walmart owes us an explanation — a mea culpa — a BIG apology. I am tired of the stonewalling. Americans are very forgiving — look at how many times we have forgiven Lindsey Lohan.

But what do we get? Mindless, robotic, meaningless, and worthless responses from Walmart.

As Mike put it so nicely, “This is not a “boo hoo, we didn’t win” post. It’s not sour grapes.” So to those who continue to post self-righteous moralizing messages telling those of us who worked hard to bring the $100,000 to Fresno, quite it.

We have come together as a community over this and are continuing to work in positive ways to help alleviate the difficulties of some in our valley.

We would just appreciate some honesty from Walmart and a coming clean about their botched up administration of this contest. That is not too much to ask and it would go a long way in repairing Walmart’s tarnished reputation.

Jeff Stewart says:

Get over it this is sounding like a boo hoo we did not win. Your lucky they gave anything at all. Plus some of the people who go to these free food things drive up in Mercedes, BMW’s, and big SUV’s how many people actually need food? Just because the news story says 5,000 showed up for the giveaway of free food does not mean they all needed it.

Claire L says:

Sure there are people who abuse the system… but they aren’t the majority. Why through the baby out with the bathwater?
Seriously, we’re going to look at 100 hungry kids and say “I’m sorry, we just aren’t going to feed you anymore because three of you aren’t really in need.”?

I understand the frustration in knowing there are people out there who are stealing from the working and from the hungry.

I also know that even those people pulling up in their fancy cars might be spending their money elsewhere and that free food is the only food their kids will get.

John says:

I was really thinking it made sense for Walmart to give both Fresno and SLC $1,000,000 each until I started talking with more friends that were not involved with the contest. When I talked with friends they were all saying, “Walmart? Feed the Hungry? What are you talking about.” Then I realized this was only popular with those involved. The others don’t care about it. So then I really started to worry that Fresno would only get $100,000 since this wouldn’t matter to Walmart either.

Superfood says:

Why hasn’t anyone discussed filing a lawsuit on behalf of the obstructed and circumvented? I’m not kidding around at all.

Jeff Stewart says:

Did i say dont give any out NOOOOO. i said some of them dont need it. It’s inflating the actually number of people who need help. If your driving a big suv to get food for your kids maybe you should stop at a car dealership on the way home and trade it in for something more economical. Then save the rest of the money for food for your kids, Save the food for the people who are walking and taking the bus to get free food.

Claire L says:

@ Jeff. Wow, way to turn a discussion into a foot stomping contest. From 0 to whiny in three seconds. I’m impressed.

Jeff stewart says:

It’s ok i understand Claire does not get it.