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Walmart Can’t Play the Victim for Selling a Racist Product

July 20, 2017, 5:05 PM UTC

Are you being accused of being a villain? If so, you might assume that the best way to defend yourself is by claiming to be a victim in the situation. But if you are actually at fault, others will ultimately see right through it.

Politicians do that all the time, but occasionally you see it in the business world. In fact, that’s what Walmart effectively did Tuesday when the company was confronted with a sudden crisis. The incident began when comedian Travon Free notified Walmart that its website included a wig cap that used a racial slur in its description.

While Free’s message was fairly restrained, his method of delivery was not, as he publicly tweeted not only to his own 80,000 followers, but Walmart’s 875,000 followers as well.

A traditional crisis management formula would direct Walmart to move with speed in meeting three simple criteria: First, fix the problem; second, take accountability and express regret; and third, commit to make changes that will prevent the problem from happening again.

Walmart did indeed move with speed, quickly issuing a statement on Twitter: “We are very sorry and appalled that this third party seller listed their item with this description on our only marketplace. It is a clear violation of our policy and has been removed, and we are investigating the seller to determine how this could have happened.”

At first glance, this response would seem to fulfill the crisis management formula. But read it again against the crisis management criteria, and you see a clear strategy to avoid villainy by playing the victim:

Fix the problem? Check. The offending content was quickly removed.

Take accountability and express regret? Not really. Walmart pinned the accountability on the “third party seller,” and any regret is focused on the fact that its policies were violated by somebody else. In fact, to stress its victimhood, the statement said it was “appalled.”

Promise to make changes to prevent the problem from recurring? Nope. Walmart promised an investigation, but only one focused on the third-party seller, not on Walmart’s ability to manage its own site.

The shrewd framing seemed to work, as the controversy died down after a single “trending” wave of news coverage. In fact, because the company moved so quickly, most of the headlines focused on the fact that Walmart had apologized.

But the more you resort to playing the victim card, the less effective it tends to become. If Walmart does not improve its systems to better police the content on its own site, then other incidents will inevitably occur. The public’s focus will eventually shift to the company’s inability to control its own site.

Walmart would do well to remind itself why Free chose to call it out instead of the third-party seller. The comedian undoubtedly targeted Walmart because he knew it would produce a more meaningful effect, since the retail giant is far better known and far more reliant on the reputation of its brand than some tiny, United Kingdom-based wig seller called Jagazi Naturals.

That’s the reality Walmart must live with. Consequently, the company should treat any product it sells as if it is stamped with the Walmart trademark. Because in the consumer’s mind, if you sell it, you own it.

Paul Pendergrass is an independent communications advisor and speechwriter who writes on business, leadership and communication.