Inside Walmart’s digital strategy

Two Walmart communications pros share how the retail giant is taking control of its reputation. Steal a few lessons from its playbook.

When your organization has thousands of stores worldwide, you’re bound to have some reputational problems.

Such is the case with Walmart, a brand that has battled countless rumors about the way it treats its employees, customers and the communities it serves.

“We know what the stories are,” Chad Mitchell, senior director of digital communications at Walmart, told a captive audience at Ragan’s Social Media Conference for PR, Marketing and Corporate Communications on March 28. “When you employ 2.3 million people and have 11,000 stores, you’re bound to have vulnerabilities.”

How can an organization not only squash those rumors, but ensure that the public’s perception of the company matches reality?
Mitchell and Dan Kneeshaw, senior director of global associate communications at Walmart, revealed the retail giant’s approach in a session titled, “Down to basics: The building blocks of a winning digital strategy.”

Here are their takeaways:

1. Create a functional structure.

Internal communications is dead. Or, if it isn’t, it will be soon, Mitchell said.

Internal communications messages tend to be known as the boring stuff, like emails about the parking lot getting repaved. Though that information is important in its own way, what employees really want to hear are the stories you share externally.

That’s why Mitchell and Kneeshaw’s teams work together to do what they call “eternal” (external and internal) communication. External and internal communications teams often want to tell the same stories, Mitchell said. By integrating the two, you avoid duplicating efforts and unnecessarily spending money.

Plus, “great content is great content. There isn’t internal or external anymore,” Kneeshaw added. “There is always content that we want our associates to know about, but then there’s the content that our associates want to engage with. Our goal is to find that sweet spot.”

Though you might not have the power or authority to restructure your organization’s communications teams, consider how you can break down the silos and sync your efforts.

“You have to find a structure that works for your business,” Kneeshaw said.

Consider how many people are on your team and how they work together. Then, choose a structure that helps you to be most efficient.

RELATED: Engage employees though culture and communications

2. Have a vision.

Walmart’s battle against the rumor mill began when it remained silent and let the public characterize it, Mitchell explained. To try and rebuild Walmart’s reputation and share the good that the organization is doing, the goal of Mitchell and Kneeshaw’s teams is not to sell—it’s to tell the Walmart story and change people’s hearts and minds.

Mitchell recommends writing a mission statement to serve as your team’s vision. When you have a clear, consistent goal as your strategy’s foundation, you set yourself up for success.

3. Hire the right staff.

Once you’ve busted a few silos and crafted a strategic mission, you need the right people on your team. Mitchell’s first tip: Avoid the “social media ninjas,” “digital gurus” or “media mavens.”

“Don’t ever call yourself a ninja,” Mitchell advised. Instead, he recommended becoming a corporate athlete—someone who understands how the entire communications cycle works. “You have to know how a press release works and how to leverage social. You need to know how to quickly cut a video,” he said. “You don’t have to be a subject matter expert, but you need to know how every aspect of communications works.”

“You have to be able to recreate yourself to continue to be relevant in your field,” Kneeshaw elaborated. “And you have to know your business. Get steeped in the business and know what you’re talking about. Learn how to tell a story that will be relevant and compelling to your audience. That’s the only way to be effective.”

4. Be channel agnostic.

As any good communicator knows, you have to meet your audience members where they are. That means you can’t just start using a new social media platform because it’s cool. Use the channels where your audience members already spend their time.

“We can’t jump on fads, and we’re Walmart. If we can’t do it, you can’t do it either,” Mitchell said. “Avoid the shiny objects.”

That said, you must to be ready to move on to new channels before your audience does. Just because they’re spending time on Facebook today doesn’t mean they’ll be there next month or next year. You have to anticipate their behavior and be ready to engage with them on a new platform when they move on. Which brings us to…

5. Go fast and break things.

“Try things quickly, and be willing to shift and go in a different direction,” Kneeshaw advised. “Don’t be afraid to take chances and learn.”

Is that data telling you that your audience is spending hours on Instagram? Don’t worry about becoming an Instagram expert (see No. 3). Figure it out as you go.

The key to success is determining what new endeavors require more care.

“We don’t want to break the heirloom china; we want to break the paper plates,” Mitchell said.

Topics: PR

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