To combat image issues, Walmart bets big on its own newsroom

At some point last year, Walmart’s senior director Chad Mitchell noticed that the only way the world’s biggest company spoke to its customers was through a stale website that was only updated once or twice a year.

That’s a problem for anyone, but doubly for Walmart as it deals with persistent brand problems: Walmart routinely ranks at the bottom of the retail sector when it comes to reputation, mostly due to reports of underpaying its workers, relying on goods from China and driving mom-and-pop stores out of business. 

“A static corporate website doesn’t do much to foster a conversation,” said Mitchell. What was required was a full-on messaging blitz.

Enter Walmart Today: Mitchell doubled the size of the digital team to seven people and started to turn the blog — formerly focused just on “sustainability” — into a news website. Mitchell says he took cues from brand publishers like Coca-Cola (the two share a CMS provider) and GE. The brand tapped the agency Omelet, which embedded an art director-cum-news editor inside the retailer’s Arkansas headquarters, with a deliverable-free mandate. “We thought of this as if we’re publishers reacting to the world,” said Mike Wallen, chief content officer at Omelet. “It would be disingenuous to try and predict what we’re going to do for them, so we didn’t.”

Walmart employs 1.3 million people in the U.S. alone, meaning the “newsroom” has plenty of potential stories to write. It may run stories about a Walmart employee who ran a marathon at the North Pole or profile an entire family that works at its stores. 

The site publishes two or three new stories a week and posts video features and profiles of its employees every two weeks. Next: It’s working on a podcast about Walmart.

Walmart Today, which gets about 1 million monthly uniques (including all platforms and channels) is a clear effort by the company to combat an overarching negative image. In January, the company closed 269 stores globally and laid off about 10,000 workers. Late last year, Bloomberg broke a story which painted the company as paranoid about its own workers and worried about potential reforms that could raise minimum wage. A new report by the National Labor Relations Board says the company continues to engage in many unfair labor relations practices.

Mitchell is well aware of these issues: Since becoming more proactive, Mitchell said there has been a 15 percent lift in reputation for the company — mostly in a change in how people perceive Walmart’s treatment of employees. The issues about foreign goods and Walmart’s effect on local stores is harder to disprove, he said, and a blog or a website may not be the venue for that.

Today, the blog gets 1 million monthly uniques, but Mitchell said he has seen declining organic reach and traffic — challenges also being felt at other brand publications like, Coke’s Journey and GE Reporters. “Distribution is a challenge,” said Mitchell. “One of our primary goals this year is growing the audience on our owned channels and reach more people on earned, rented and paid channels through distributive content.”

The brand uses Outbrain and Taboola to increase the distribution for stores and runs sponsored fare on Vox, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Walmart also wants to use its own stories as proxy for comment: When Walmart reintroduced greeters at store doors, a Fortune story about the move quoted the blog. “That helps the media team,” said Mitchell.

“We’re now looking at Walmart Today as an umbrella brand newsroom for everything,” said Mitchell. “We have to address those things people want us to address.”

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