What PR won’t fix

No amount of PR and no number of company blogs can make a bad company look good — or smart. Wal-Mart is the poster pig for that lipstick. Again and again, they prove themselves to be mean, greedy, and stupid. Again and again, they and their PR people are forced to apologize. And it’s clear: They never learn. The culture remains venal. Management remains blind to the fact that their moral myopia is bad for the brand and bad for business. Even the PR company, Edelman, fails to realize that this is bringing them down — who’d want to trust them after they keep throwing themselves on swords for Wal-Mart and who’d want to hire them given Wal-Mart’s horrid reputation — and they’d be better off resigning the account, no matter what it’s worth. Greed is usually such a simplistic explanation for bad behavior but in this case, it explains everything. This wouldn’t be so incredibly apparent if it didn’t keep happening over and over and over again.

The latest of the company’s moral lapses is the story of Debbie Shank, a former employee who was hit by a truck, is severely brain-damaged, and who won a lawsuit to help pay for her very expensive care. Wal-Mart wanted a piece of that suit.

Wal-Mart’s health care plan lets the retail giant recoup the cost of its expenses if an employee collects damages in a lawsuit. And Wal-Mart set out to do just that after Shank and her husband, Jim, won $1 million after suing the trucking company involved in the wreck. After legal fees, the couple received $417,000.

Wal-Mart sued the Shanks to recoup $470,000 it paid for her medical care. However, a court ruled that the company could only recoup about $275,000 — the amount that was left in a trust fund for her care.

Who cares what the clause says? The story went on TV and it inspires both heartbreak and rage (much of it in blogs). It’s obvious that Wal-Mart has no moral compass and not even a self-interested sense of priorities given its PR problems, especially over its health care for employees.

People make fun of Google’s righteous vow not to be evil. It’s practically a self-parody. And it’s a shame that any institution should think that it needs to make such a promise; shouldn’t it be presumed?

But imagine if Google took over Wal-Mart and made that one change, posting a sign in every store and every office: Don’t be evil. Imagine if that became the basis of firings and hirings: out with the bad air, in with the good air. Could the culture of this company possibly be reformed? Could they ever see that being evil to employees and customers is bad business? Could they ever train employees to think differently, to factor decency into their decisions? Or has it descended too far into hell?

The contrast between Wal-Mart and Google illuminates Google’s vow in a new light. It doesn’t look so silly to promise not to be evil when you watch the business of an evil company.

: LATER: I meant to add this: Wal-Mart spends many, many times as much on PR with Edelman as it was going after from the poor, brain-damaged accident victim and her family. Even from a self-interested, practical, sensible perspective, they should have seen that this would be damaging — so much so that Edelman would have been better paying the fee itself. This also indicates bad management judgment at Wal-Mart.