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US: Unwitting Shoppers Recruited for Wal-Mart PR Fight

by Marilyn GeewaxCox News Service
April 4th, 2006

Thousands of area Wal-Mart shoppers have been asked in recent weeks to join Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group headed by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. Those who did so may not have realized that they had become the newest recruits in a fierce public relations war between Wal-Mart and national labor unions.

"I just filled out the paper," said Tamymy Ramos, 27, who signed up outside a Wal-Mart on Saturday after a shopping trip with her 3-year-old daughter.

Ramos, a native of Brazil, wasn't sure what she would get in exchange for giving up her name, address and e-mail address. "He told me, but I forgot. Maybe some coupons," she said.

In fact, she had just given her contact information to canvassers working for a Washington-based consulting firm with close ties to the Republican Party.

Washington and politics? Isn't a trip to Wal-Mart all about finding low-cost pickles and furnace filters?

Not anymore.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, increasingly is under attack by union leaders, environmentalists and others for practices involving wages, benefits, suburban sprawl and more.

Last year, unions created two Washington-based groups, Wal-Mart Watch and WakeUpWalmart.com., to generate grassroots opposition to the company's practices. Both groups operate Web sites, send information to reporters, e-mail potential supporters and stage events such as rallies and documentary film screenings.

Last December, Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., created its own grassroots group, Working Families for Wal-Mart. It hired Edelman, a global public relations firm, to organize the group out of its Washington office and launch a nationwide campaign.

In recent weeks, the group has boosted its profile by getting Young, a former United Nations ambassador, to serve as the chairman of its steering committee. He received a consulting contract for an undisclosed amount.

Young serves as the organization's public face, but behind the scenes is a consulting firm hired to collect contact information from potential supporters.

That firm is Crosslink Strategy Group LLC, founded by Terry Nelson, a GOP strategist with ties to the nation's most influential Republicans.

Nelson served as national political director for the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. Last month, he signed on as a senior adviser for the Straight Talk America political action committee created by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a likely presidential candidate in 2008.

Democrats criticize Nelson for his links to a money-laundering indictment involving former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. According to the Texas indictment, DeLay employee Jim Ellis sent Nelson a check for $190,000 in corporate contributions, to be used by seven candidates for the Texas Legislature.

While the indictment puts Nelson in the middle of a transaction that prosecutors say was illegal, he is not considered a target of the investigation.

In an interview last week, McCain said he has no qualms about Nelson's ethics. "He is a fine man," McCain said. "He was very helpful to President Bush and he is very well regarded."

Still, it might strike some as odd that Young, once a Democrat in Congress, would be working so closely with a top Republican strategist.

Questions about the relationship between Crosslink and Working Families for Wal-Mart were raised by Wal-Mart Watch.

Working Families for Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Sheridan said the group's goal is "to sign up citizen spokespeople, leaders in their communities who can give voice to the millions of Americans who believe Wal-Mart is good for working families."

Sheridan said Working Families for Wal-Mart may contact members to urge them to write letters to the editor or call talk-radio shows to defend Wal-Mart whenever controversies arise.

Officials at Crosslink did not respond to requests for an interview.

Encouraged to join:

Starting last month, Crosslink hired temporary workers to staff sign-up tables in front of Wal-Mart stores in metro Atlanta. Saturday, four such workers were posted outside the two entrances to a Wal-Mart in Marietta, just outside Atlanta. As shoppers entered the store, they were encouraged to join.

Their immediate reward was to be enrolled in a drawing to win an expense-paid party, one of a series to be offered for Memorial Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.

Shoppers were not told who was funding the operation. The post cards they filled out said only: "Yes, I will join Working Families for Wal-Mart because I support lower prices for working families and more jobs for my community."

The cards did not explain how their contact information would be used, nor what their duties might be.

After hearing the "pitch," Mark Stafford, 26, of Marietta, said he agrees that Wal-Mart does good. "I believe it benefits (consumers) as far as prices are concerned," he said.

But he had no idea what the group is trying to do.




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