FAILURE TO ANTICIPATE: THE WALMART EXAMPLE

On April 22nd, 2012 The New York Times broke a huge story on Wal-Mart’s Walmex subsidiary. The subsidiary is alleged to have systematically engaged in bribery in order to grease the wheels of  its store expansion program in Mexico. Two of its most senior executives have been directly implicated in the scheme and the subsequent cover-up. The fallout has been dramatic including upcoming Congressional and Justice Department investigations and investigations within Mexico, a precipitous drop in Wal-Mart’s stock price, and perhaps worst of all, a huge black eye to WalMart’s reputation for integrity.

 This is a story that will not go away soon, even with the short collective memory for which the U.S.public is noted, and even with the perception we have, mistaken or not, about how business is done inMexico. The investigations and potential lawsuits will wend their way forward but Wal-Mart has an immediate problem: how to revive its reputation which was essentially snuffed out by one newspaper story. Unless there are very clear explanations that go beyond mere flim-flam, cut your losses Wal-Mart. Cooperate with investigations to ensure that they are completed rapidly. Develop your best explanations. Negotiate your fines for violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. Make restitution wherever it is required. Terminate those who were complicit. Get your house in order as quickly as you can.

 But this article is not about what to do now. It is about what should have been done. Wal-Mart’s story is as old as the hills. It is the same story as Richard Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Enron, Goldman-Sachs. And on and on and on. It is the story of hubris. It is the story of deceit. It is the story of the ostrich.

 Faced with a calamitous issue, a powerful person, a powerful company, a powerful country is most likely still to believe that there is a good chance of getting away with something. Lie low and time will make the issue recede into history. Put a band aid on and no one will dare to pierce your impenetrable shell. What would have happened if Wal-Mart had entertained a genuine independent internal investigation when it had the opportunity, and made those findings known to the Justice Department and toMexico? There would have been a much smaller story. Wal-Mart would at least have been accused of being honorable. Its reputation for integrity would have been burnished. It would have paid a price but perhaps not as steep a price as it will now pay.

 Why don’t people get it? Because there is a gambler in all of us, even when the odds are poor. Is there a chance we can get away with something? Let’s give it a try. What do we have to lose? Ask Richard Nixon. Ask Bill Clinton. Ask all those who have tried to wheedle their way out of messes only to get caught. Ah but then again there is always that other guy, the guy who got away with it. We should follow him. He’s a smart guy. He knew the angles. If he could do it, we can too.  Right now things are calm. Let’s not rock the boat. But in the long run the straight-shooter almost always wins.

Crisis management is not only activated when a cris occurs. It begins prior to a crisis in order to avoid a crisis or lessen its severity. Preparation and right-thinking separate those companies and organizations from those that merely kick the can or determine to ignore or purposefully hide a potentially serious issue.

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