Social Justice: Walmart Mishandles the Wrath of Pet Lovers

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Early this week Golden Corral was facing a Social Media PR controversy that was somewhat unique from the numerous fast food restaurant stories that have blown up social media in the past few years.

Instead of an employee causing a disaster by staging an unsanitary picture, Brandon Huber posted a You Tube video exposing a franchises mishandling of food.

And yes, Golden Corral mishandled the situation when the manager of that store stated that he was ‘disappointed’ in the behavior of the employee. And yes, their Facebook Page blew up with people calling out both their unsanitary practices and pathetic reaction to its exposure.

It is another fairly cut and dried story that should give social media PR pros hope that they will always find employment; companies still don’t understand how to handle these controversial situations.

And I was all set to write about it, outlining the initial story, and then the mishandling, until Walmart Canada made a decision that pulled all of my attention toward it. Allegedly, they fired an employee for trying to free a customer’s dog from a hot car.

Walmart employee fired over hot dog

A Walmart Employee Tries to Free a Dog from a Hot Car

There are varying accounts of the exact timeline of what occurred prior to Carla Cheney being fired from the Kemptville Ontario Walmart.

One story goes like this: Carla Cheney was standing outside the Walmart she worked at in Kemptville, Ontario with a few friends, and not in uniform, when she saw a man leave his dog in a truck with the windows rolled up.  When the man did not return within 10 minutes, police were called.

The CBC reported that another bystander, not Cheney, called police and gave them the customer’s license plate number.  The man returned to his truck before the police arrived and drove up saying ‘hello’ to Cheney and her friends.

Cheney says that she told the man he should not leave his dog in his vehicle on such a hot day, and that the man told her it was none of her business.

The customer returned to the store later that day and complained about Cheney; she was called into her manager’s office.  When she stated that she thought she was doing the right thing, the manager told her she should not have said anything.

Cheney stated that she would call the police if she saw the same thing happening again.  In her words, the manager then responded this way:

“He told me then that I was terminated, he wanted my vest, my badge, and to clean out my locker and that I needed to leave.”

Another version of the events has Cheney speaking to her manager about the dog in the car, being told there was nothing she could do, and then calling the police herself.  In both versions Cheney is fired with very little explanation.

Any of you who follow this series, or social media pr blow ups in general, can guess what happened next; the story came alive on Facebook.

Animal Rights Activists Speak Out on Facebook

The first page to spring up on Facebook is a Group called Animal Rights for Kemptville Walmart, and it is somewhat small at just under 12,500 members as of this writing.  The group description reads:

“Employee dismissed from Kemptville Walmart for trying to educate a customer on the dangers of leaving pets in their vehicle in extreme heat, and another employee fired thank you Sean Dhaliwal and Carla Cheney for standing up for something you believe in”

Sean Dhaliwal was an employee who, upon noticing a customer had left their dog in a hot car, spoke to the customer about it and was fired; Dhaliwal was fired days later and Walmart claims his firing had nothing to do with the incident.

In addition to the Animal Rights page, Walmart Canada’s Facebook Page is being overwhelmed with critics.hotcar walmart

Walmart’s Response

Walmart claims that the firing of Cheney had nothing to do with the dog in the truck. Their announcement on their Walmart Cananda Facebook Page from Thursday reads:

Thank you for contacting us with your concerns. We want you to know that the associate in question was absolutely not let go for trying to help a dog in a locked car. The decision to dismiss an associate is one that we take extremely seriously and must follow a comprehensive process. However, out of respect for the associate and for privacy reasons we cannot provide specifics about why this associate was let go.

At Walmart Canada we have a long standing protocol that directs associates to take appropriate action, and if necessary, notify the authorities if they believe an animal is in distress or at risk. With respect to the recent story in the media about our Kemptville store, as per our protocol, the store manager did speak to the customer in question about the dangers of leaving a dog in a hot car.

Walmart is a major supporter and advocate for animal rights. Over the past year alone we have made donations to local SPCAs, the Humane Society and Animal Shelters. In addition, signs will be added to the front of all our stores across the country to advise customers of the dangers of leaving kids and pets in a hot car.

We appreciate you sharing your concerns with us as we take situations like this very seriously.

They have a similar statement on their corporate website.

Walmart’s Attempt to Control the Social Media Discussion

The Walmart Canada Facebook Page has almost 800,000 likes, and almost every comment posted in the Comments by Others section, and in response to Walmart’s unrelated posts, are critical of the company and distrusting of their statement. Walmart appears to only be responding to posts unrelated to the firing.

On the Bentoville Arkansas Facebook Page there are over 31 million likes, but the firing of Carla Cheney is not a hot topic in the replies to Walmart’s post. Finding the Posts by Others section is circuitous at best.

Because I was stumped, I posted a query asking where I could find them, and was answered within minutes by Walmart; all I needed to do was go to ‘Highlights, Posts by Others.’  I’m a heavy social media user and I’d never had to follow that path before; I wonder how many regular users would know where to look.

When I did click on Posts by Others I found that indeed, the page had a considerable number of comments about the firing of Carla Cheney and Walmart’s policies.

 Initially, when I  thought that Walmart had  turned off comments by others, I did a wee bit of research and it turns out that Walmart has a comprehensive social media interaction policy on their website.

Here is there rule for handling customer complaints on Facebook:

There is a place for customer service-related questions, complaints, concerns or ideas from customers. If you are a customer and have a customer service comment, complaint, concern or idea, we encourage you to post it on Walmart’s Facebook Feedback tab, to ensure that we can respond in a timely manner. Please note that any customer service posts published on a Walmart page by customers will be removed when discovered. As always, if you would like to comment about customer service or any other issue you can visit our Contact Us page or call 1-800-WALMART.

When you follow that Feeback Tab you will find a contact form allowing you to voice your opinion or concern; you will not find the complaints or comments of any other customer.

I have not come across this on any other Business Page I’ve used, including the Walmart Canada page, so I was a bit bemused.  So far, on their own main page, Walmart is controlling the discussion; but alas for Walmart, the webs is enormous and they cannot control the conversation everywhere.

Walmart’s Twitter Rules

Understanding Walmart’s Facebook rules, I couldn’t wait to delve into how the corporation would try to control the much more open and frantic conversations on Twitter.  Here is their Twitter policy as stated on their website:

Please note that we won’t be able to reply to store or service issues through Twitter. If you would like to comment about customer service or other issues please visit our Walmart Facebook feedback app, leave a comment through our Contact Us page or call 1-800-WALMART.

Here are a couple of things you should know about our Twitter engagement:

All official Walmart Twitter users are identified at walmart.com/twitter.

We are committed to having a dialogue with our followers. We count on you to use @ messages in a way that contributes to the dialogue. Please support any claims with links to information sources whenever possible. We love opinions; we love them even more when you back them up with facts.

We strive to respond to as many relevant questions and comments as possible, but we reserve the right to use our judgment in selecting the messages we respond to.

Following a Twitter account or including an account in a Twitter list does not constitute an endorsement; the same applies to re-tweeting messages posted on accounts that Walmart does not own, or marking them as “favorites.”

The posting and presence of content on Twitter and on this site does not necessarily mean that Walmart agrees with the content, ensures its accuracy or otherwise approves of it. Nothing in any Twitter page constitutes a binding representation, agreement or an endorsement on the part of Walmart. Please review Twitter’s terms of use carefully when engaging on the site.

When I viewed Walmart’s twitter stream, it was devoid of any mention of the Kemptville story and containing very few tweets from anyone other than Walmart, including this one I found when I searched for #CarlaCheney:

Woman says she was fired from Wal-Mart for saving dog from hot car http://on-msn.com/176ftkj  via @msnNOW I REPEAT @WALMART shame shame on YOU!

I then tweeted the company to ask if they were moderating tweets directed at them, and thus far I’ve received no response (I only tweeted to Walmart today).  My tweet did not appear in Walmart’s twitter stream, but did appear in mine.

As Walmart stated on their company website, they will not respond to twitter complaints on twitter, but I’m interested to know what the policy is regarding moderating tweets.

The Story Walmart Cannot Control

Frankly,  at first I felt a hint of admiration for Walmart’s attempts to control the social media conversation about them; they certainly have avoided allowing a customer unaware of the Kemptville issue from stumbling upon it on their page.

Of course, I am more bemused by their apparent naivety about how much power corporations, even those as large as Walmart, actually have anymore in regards to controlling their PR story.  Social Media has changed the game and yes, corporations can still hide from the social conversation, but they can’t keep it quiet.

Right now there is a petition on Change.org, one with over 7,000 signatures  aimed at Walmart over their policy on Pets.

Petition WALMART

If you search #Carla Cheney on twitter you will find plenty of information about the incident; searching #Walmart gives you a mix of promotional tweets and the story of Cheney’s firing.  There are countless blogs on the Carla Cheney story as well, and the mainstream news has picked it up.

Gawker posted a story Friday about Walmart’s internal website blowing up with employee complaints; in that story Gawker claims that Walmart is purchasing Google and Twitter ads aimed directly at their readers because of their relentless criticism of the corporation.

Carla Cheney has now retained a lawyer, so we can expect that this story will stay in the news for some time.

The reality is that Walmart is faced with criticisms on a regular basis; it may be that to them, this is just another one of the countless negative pr hits they deal with as part of doing business.  Perhaps they’ll lose some customers, but it is more likely that their cheap prices will allow them to continue doing business as they see fit.

The change that is clear to observers, and should be obvious to Walmart is that they cannot control their own pr; social media has given even the hourly worker, a larger voice.

Carla Cheney contacted the CBC, but social media is the channel that brought international attention to the incident.

Larger corporations should take heed: controlling the conversation on  your own social media profiles may give your company the illusion that it has everything under control, but the social media conversation will go on with or without your participation.

VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.

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