Besides its success in selling goods that range from groceries to televisions, Wal-Mart has also shown a highly developed ability to sell itself.
The country’s biggest retailer has adroitly used millions of dollars in campaign contributions, charity drives, lobbying campaigns, and its work for popular causes like childhood nutrition and carbon emissions to build support in Congress and the White House.
It also uses these methods to increase its “favorable” ratings, especially with liberals. And as Wal-Mart’s top lobbyist explained to investors in 2010, the company thinks the strategy has worked.
“Across the board, our reputation with elected officials is improved, not only here in the U.S. but around the world,” the lobbyist, Leslie Dach, boasted as he ticked off poll numbers that he said demonstrated the company’s improving public profile. That popularity, he said, “makes it easier for us to stay out of the public limelight when we don’t want to be there.”
With controversy building over its role in a Mexican bribery scandal, Wal-Mart’s desire to stay out of the limelight will now be put to a test. To help weather the fallout, Wal-Mart will rely on the relationships it has worked assiduously to develop in Washington during the last decade — relationships that its critics say have insulated it from political threats.
For years Wal-Mart had reliable allies in the Republican Party, while it struggled to develop support among Democrats. But in recent years it has joined with the Obama administration on a number of its initiatives, including President Obama’s health care plan, environmental safeguards and childhood obesity. At the same time, it has aggressively lobbied the administration and Congress on dozens of policies affecting its business operations, including global trade, taxes, immigration, business regulation and waste disposal standards.
Industry experts say its political priorities could now be jeopardized by accusations first disclosed in The New York Times that Wal-Mart had paid $24 million in bribes to Mexican officials and covered up the payments.