Wal-Mart Takes a Page Out of Ron Popeil's Book

Wal-Mart has undertaken an unusual step to get its message out to employees and supporters.

Infomercials — normally the domain of Ron Popeil's rotisserie chicken cookers and Veg-O-Matic vegetable slicers.

Wal-Mart created three half-hour videos called "In Front With Wal-Mart." Produced by this year's Super Bowl halftime producer, Don Mischer, the videos include stories about the company and profiles of Wal-Mart's employees.

"It's our view of ourselves," said Nick Argawal, a spokesman for Wal-Mart. "It's unfiltered by anyone else."

Two of the presentations have already aired four times each, once on the USA Network and three times on the Lifetime Network, usually between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. The third video will run starting June 16 at 7 a.m. on Lifetime. They can also be viewed on Wal-Mart's Web site.

In the second video, a Wal-Mart employee in Fort Hood, Texas, talks about her military husband who is leaving for Iraq. The story ends featuring a DVD that Wal-Mart created with "Sesame Street" producers to help children who have parents serving in the military overseas. The segment ends telling viewers that more than 3,000 employees at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club are in the military.

Also included in the video is Wal-Mart's push to use organically grown cotton, and a story about the five finalists in the company's "American Idol"-like competition, complete with online voting. The winning employee gets to sing the national anthem at the company's annual shareholder meeting.

There's also an interview with singer Beyonce talking about her community outreach as well as growing up in Texas where she shopped at Wal-Mart. "I love it," she says of the retailer in the video.

While the infomercials air on broadcast television where anyone can watch, the company said the programs were directed at the more than 1.3 million employees and their families. Wal-Mart is the nation's largest private employer.

"It's internal communication for external broadcast," said Argawal. He said the company had promoted the broadcast dates to employees through its Web site, in-store signs and in other ways.

"Image campaigns are effective with employers and with shareholders, because you can never underestimate the heartache with disgruntled employees ashamed of their company," said crisis communication expert Eric Dezenhall.

While he doubts image campaigns convince the general public of their message, Dezenhall said they showed employees that "the company is taking action to address their reputation."

He added, "This falls under the category, 'It couldn't hurt.' There's no chance of backfire."

The idea for creating stories and airing them on broadcast TV was spearheaded by Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart's executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations who was hired away from the company's public relations firm, Edelman.

While the company wouldn't disclose how much it had paid to produce the videos or the cost to show them on cable, company spokesman Argawal said it was not that expensive and represented a real value for the money spent.

No word yet on how many people actually watched.

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