Walmart apologizes for back-to-school “hero” sign above gun display

The retail giant faced online outrage after an image made the rounds on social media sites showing a recent marketing campaign message in a controversial location.

Walmart might not have the answers to a recent backlash, but its swift crisis response can be a model for PR pros.

On Wednesday, a photo lingered on the front page of Reddit, later making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. The image showed a glass gun case at Walmart, which was nothing new: Walmart is a longtime gun retailer.

What concerned many, however, was the sign above the guns. It read, “Own the school year like a hero.”

The message juxtaposed with the image of guns harkened thoughts of the school violence that has plagued the nation, and it upset many who saw it:

The sign’s slogan is part of a back-to-school campaign which involves superhero marketing messages, and has nothing to do with guns:

Still, that did little to quell the outrage online that eventually prompted Walmart to issue an apology.

Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson told The Washington Post, “What’s seen in this photograph would never be acceptable in our stores. We regret this situation and are looking into how it could have happened.”

However, that’s not where the crisis ended. Walmart had to find out where the photo came from and how such a mistake could have happened.

Was it an in-store oversight? Did a customer move the sign? It’s still unclear how it happened. Not even Snopes could get to the bottom of it.

The Washington Post spoke with a woman named Leeanna May, who claimed that she took the original photo at a store in Evansville, Indiana. May said Walmart responded to her now-private account that the sign had been removed:

However, Walmart later backpedaled on that account: Crowson told CNN Money that the response had been a mistake.

The company followed up with a clarifying tweet:

The controversial location of the sign could have been a prank from a customer or store employee, but no additional details have come to light.

Either way, Walmart’s response holds crisis lessons for communicators. The company started by stating the obvious: condemning the message and sentiment behind the sign. Its spokesman promised to look into it further, and then followed up.

Walmart doesn’t have all the answers, but the company displayed a standard protocol for this type of crisis—which is becoming somewhat of an epidemic for the retail giant.

In September 2016, a store in Panama City, Florida faced criticism over a Coca-Cola display depicting the Twin Towers. Last month, Walmart apologized for a racial slur in one of its marketplace listings.

What do you make of Walmart’s crisis response, PR Daily readers?

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