clever response

Quarreling with People Who Buy Ink by the Barrel

For a long time, people in the PR business urged clients to avoid picking fights with "people who buy ink by the barrel." It is another way of saying, "don't bring a knife to a gunfight."

But Walmart isn't accustomed to taking advice, as evidenced this week by its response to a New York Times column that accused the giant retailer of paying "humiliating wages" to its workers and being a "net drain" on the U.S. economy because its employees rely on food stamps and Medicaid.

David Tovar, Walmart's vice president of corporate communications, decided to apply his red pen to Tim Egan's column, with this note attached: "Tim, Thanks for sharing your first draft. Below are a few thoughts to ensure something inaccurate doesn't get published." 

Walmart posted the Tovar editing job on its website, then let the fur fly. The "Fact Check" post quickly attracted media and blogger attention in a way that a press release or ordinary rebuttal would never have achieved. 

So does this mean that the advice about avoiding fights with guys that buy ink by the barrel is no longer valid? Not quite. 

First off, Walmart, which is the frequent target of a wide array of critics, is a special case. When other people routinely use you as a punching bag, you might be entitled now and again to punch back. Especially if you punch with some flair, as Tovar did.

However, for most companies and organizations, staging a public quarrel with the media usually doesn't turn out so well. You appear defensive. And you often don't get the last word. Depending on your ability to project your protest, you might not even get noticed.

There are constructive avenues to express concern or correct facts. Most publications will afford someone the chance to rebut an editorial or respond to a major story aimed at them. A well-reasoned op-ed becomes a valuable PR tool well beyond its publication date. It can be shared with stakeholders and customers, and it can be posted on a website. It even can be the basis for a special-purpose website that tells your side of the story in more detail, with supportive validation.