Last month Wal-Mart commissioned a poll which purported to show that 75% of union members in New York City were "all for" a Wal-Mart in the city. The New York Post ran a story which began, "New York City's union workers love Wal-Mart."
The improbable results of this "poll" are part of organized effort by Wal-Mart which dates back to 2005, when the giant retailer began to use "push-polls" to counter-attack its critics.
On his way out the door in 2009, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott told Fortune Magazine that one of the mistakes he made during his tenure was being far too slow in responding to public criticism of his company. According to Fortune, Scott admitted "he didn't take its concerns as seriously as he should have, believing instead that the negative feedback was coming from blue-state elites who didn't shop at Wal-Mart and therefore didn't understand the money the company saved consumers."
But in 2005, Wal-Mart started to push back at the 'blue state elites,' and behave more like a candidate running for public office than a retailer. Scott hired the Democratic PR firm Edelman in 2005, and created a "war room" of operatives in its Bentonville headquarters.
A prime weapon was the push-poll. In 2005, Thomas Riehle, a Democrat, and V. Lance Tarrance, Jr., a Republican, doing business as RT Strategies, produced a poll commissioned by Working Families For Wal-Mart, which concluded that:
• 54% of union households believe union leaders should make protecting union jobs a higher priority than attacking Wal-Mart
• 42% of union households believe the campaign against Wal-Mart makes labor union leaders less relevant to solving the economic challenges facing working families today.
• 44% of union households agree that the campaign against Wal-Mart is not a good
use of union dues
In fact, the 2005 poll indicated that 56% of union households agreed that fighting Wal-Mart was a good use of union dues.
"The data clearly show that Americans in union households -- as well as those not in union households -- are skeptical about the goals and priorities of the anti-Wal-Mart campaign being waged by union leaders at a time when U.S. manufacturers are eliminating tens of thousands of union jobs...This poll shows that union families also support Wal-Mart."
In 2009, Wal-Mart produced a political push-poll in Chicago in which residents were asked the following leading question:
Mayor Daley says that a Wal-Mart at 83rd & Stewart would bring 400+ jobs to the city and make fresh food available to the neighborhood; others believe jobs are not enough. Press 1 if you believe a Wal-Mart should be allowed to be built or Press 2 if you believe it should not.
More recently, Wal-Mart commissioned two polls in New York City designed to bolster its wooing of the City Council. In December of 2010, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a story which began: "A recent poll commissioned by Wal-Mart reveals that 76% of Brooklyn residents say they favor Wal-Mart coming to the city." The newspaper added: "Based on these facts, it appears Brooklyn could soon have a Wal-Mart."
The pollster hired by Wal-Mart was Douglas E. Schoen, whose website describes him as "one of the most influential Democratic campaign consultants for over thirty years." According to Crain's New York Business, Schoen was hired by Wal-Mart "to counter those who would argue that a Wal-Mart poll would be biased."
The Schoen poll showed that 37% of respondents did not favor locating a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood, and 30% did not agree that New York City should have a Wal-Mart. These are remarkably high negative numbers for a retail store. As one Wal-Mart executive pointed out years ago, "Why all the fuss? We're not a nuclear waste dump."
While on Wal-Mart's payroll, Schoen also produced another poll of 400 small businesses in New York, which concluded that 62% of businesses with 50 workers or less wanted Wal-Mart to come to New York. But Schoen's poll also showed that among small retailers -- the only businesses surveyed who actually compete with Wal-Mart -- 45% refused to say they favored Wal-Mart coming to New York City. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, 42% of small businesses did not say they were favorable to Wal-Mart, and in the Bronx, 56% of small business did not say they favored a Wal-Mart.
Schoen apparently did not want the public to see his survey questions, because neither of his Wal-Mart surveys are posted on his website, nor are they mentioned on Wal-Mart's websites. But Schoen was part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's inner circle, and Bloomberg's former campaign manager, Bradley Tusk, was running Wal-Mart's campaign in New York City.
Lee Scott may have thought that Wal-Mart was slow to respond to its critics, but the company is working overtime now producing a wall of polling data to make it appear that everyone in urban America -- including Democrats and union members -- want a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood.
No retailer in American history has ever had to divert so far from its corporate mission to do damage control on its image. Rather than focus on mass marketing cheap Chinese anythings, Wal-Mart has been forced to spend millions of dollars to sell itself instead.
If its polling numbers were better, the company wouldn't have to keep producing more polls.
Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. His book "Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart" is a classic in community organizing strategy. Sprawl-Busters can be found on Facebook.