Michelle Obama and Walmart: A Match Made in PR Heaven

Michele Obama Walmart
Michele Obama Walmart

Walmart's announcement that it will hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years has prompted a wide range of reactions, but no one was more positive than Michelle Obama.

The First Lady was effusive in her praise for the retailer, calling the commitment "historic" and saying that Walmart (WMT) was "setting a groundbreaking example for the private sector to follow."

Jobs for veterans has been one of the First Lady's signature issues: She and Jill Biden spearheaded the "Joining Forces" initiative to assist military families, and the White House claims the program is responsible for the hiring of 125,000 veterans and military spouses. So it makes sense that Michelle Obama would give her endorsement to Walmart's plan to guarantee jobs for recently-discharged veterans.

This, in fact, is the second time in as many years that Walmart has won glowing praise from the First Lady by with initiatives that are simpatico to her signature issues. In January 2011 the company announced it would make healthier food choices available in its stores. At the time, Walmart pointed to "Let's Move" -- Michelle Obama's push to encourage healthy eating habits and exercise among children -- as an inspiration for the action. When the announcement was made, with the First Lady in attendance, she called the plan "a victory for our children."

It's Not About Politics; It's About Popularity

The two represent something of an odd couple. Walmart and the Left have never been the best of friends, and the First Lady actually caught some flack from unions for her praise of Walmart's food initiative. But that didn't stop her from applauding Walmart this time around. If Walmart is going to help out on the First Lady's pet projects, then she's going to sing their praises.

And it stands to reason that this exactly what the company had in mind.

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Anthony Bianco, a critic of Walmart and the author of "The Bully of Bentonville: How the High Cost of Everyday Low Prices Is Hurting America," says it's unlikely that the retailer is wooing Michelle Obama as a means of getting in the administration's good graces. But the First Lady's seal of approval does help Walmart with what Bianco sees as its main goal: Good PR.

"I see [the veteran initiative] almost purely as a PR play, and I think [Michelle] Obama's comments gave them the PR bonanza they were looking for," he says. "I don't see anything too nefarious here, but they got good PR by linking up with Michelle Obama, who's a very popular figure."

And some critics say that despite that wave of good press the announcement has drawn, Walmart's plan isn't the slam-dunk for veterans that it appears to be. Time magazine crunched the numbers and found that a goal of 20,000 veteran hires a year over the next five years only constitutes about 4.2% of the retailer's projected hiring. And AOL Jobs notes that the pledge to hire any veteran within 12 months of being honorably discharged only applies to those discharged after Memorial Day, which means that the nearly 1 million veterans who are currently unemployed aren't eligible for the guarantee.

That isn't to say that the pledge is a strictly cynical ploy by Walmart. It will certainly help many veterans who might have otherwise had trouble finding work. But the biggest beneficiary is likely to be Walmart's public image, which can always use a little buffing.

And having the president's wife on-board certainly doesn't hurt in that regard.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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