Walmart offers measured response to bribery PR crisis

Allegations that Walmart bribed Mexican officials will become a sustained PR crisis for the company. Thus far, its PR response will hold up against attacks.

There’s nothing like a good old investigation that uncovers allegations of bribery and a cover-up extending to the top floor of the corporate office to bring home the point that there are no short-term PR fixes.

That’s especially the case when it involves the world’s biggest retailer and corporate wrongdoing.

Although it’s not a strategy that many will recommend—at least not officially—there’s a tried and true crisis communication strategy that calls for simply ducking until there’s a break in the attacks. There’s a good chance that Walmart’s seasoned PR team is examining this as a real option as the media calls flood in about the jaw-dropping details of a New York Times‘ investigation into the Mexico bribery scandal.

The story broke this past weekend, and details allegations that Walmart executives made numerous bribes to a host of Mexican officials, to the tune of at least $24 million, to obtain building permits for outlets across the country. Making matters worse are further allegations that the company investigated the claims before sweeping the whole affair under the rug.

Nothing is going to move this off as the lead story in media outlets across the world. It’s way too juicy and implausible. Plus, the story is just starting to get its legs.

As with any big corporate scandal story, the fallout will likely result in high-level departures, angry stockholders, criminal charges, sanctions and fines. It has all the makings of a sustained PR nightmare.

So far, Walmart’s response is measured and will hold up regardless of the outcome. The company issued a release and a video response focusing on the fact that the “allegations” happened six years ago. The statement keeps to the message of corporate responsibility, cooperation and not jumping to conclusions as an internal investigation is underway.

“We have the same high standards of integrity for every associate—regardless of his or her position—and everyone is held accountable for those standards,” the company said.

What the statement also tries to do is establish a baseline of compliance standards at the company, so if the case expands to more allegations in other parts of the world, Walmart can attempt to take the moral high ground, pointing the finger at individuals not corporate policies.

Here’s what is says in another part of the statement: “In a large global enterprise such as Walmart, sometimes issues arise despite our best efforts and intentions.”

If the case expands to uncover other scandals, possibly in one or more of the 25 other countries where Walmart operates, this stance allows the company to continue to blame rogue employees rather than faulty corporate policy.

And, of course, ducking is still an option.

Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor with 20 years of communications experience. He heads up the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him at

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