Mona Williams: The Voice of Wal-Mart

Mona Williams might have stepped into the hardest job in public relations.

Williams, 56, left a job as vice president of field public relations for AT&T worldwide in 2002 to become the spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville.

Just before her first day on the job, The New York Times printed its "first front-page negative" story about the company, she said.

"I thought, 'Whoa,'" Williams said. "But I was committed, and it turned out to be a much bigger adventure than I had anticipated."

As vice president of corporate communications, Williams' duties include national media relations, executive communications and digital and Web communications for the No. 2 company on the Fortune 500 list. For its fiscal year that ended in January, Wal-Mart had revenue of $405 billion. Williams also handles speech writing, provides counsel to senior company leaders and communication support to Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke.

In 2005, PR Week said Williams had one of the most daunting jobs in public relations. "Williams is definitely an asset, however," the magazine said.

The Louisiana native graduated with a bachelor's and a master's degree in journalism from Louisiana State University in 1977 and went to work in the Louisiana Governor's Office in its office for consumer protection. "I toured the state talking to children about bicycle safety," she said.

Williams soon took a job at AT&T in 1978 and started in the sales and marketing department but eventually ended up in public relations. "I traveled all over the world [for the job with AT&T], but, ultimately, I was a little bored because I realized I personally wasn't making much of a difference," she said.

In 2002, Wal-Mart recruited Williams to its public relations department.

"I really wasn't interested, but I was intrigued enough to check it out," Williams said.

Upon arriving in northwest Arkansas, Williams "was immediately seduced. I mean it was lush and green; flowers were blooming."

As part of her interview, Williams attended a Saturday morning Wal-Mart meeting where the topics of discussion were the sale of bicycle accessories and should popcorn continue to be sold in the stores.

"I thought how hard could this be after coming from telecom with the technology and litigation and regulation?" Williams said.

But it turned out to be difficult as Wal-Mart was bombarded with criticisms ranging from attacks on its business practices to allegations that it forced employees to work off the clock and didn't promote women.

The negative stories first hurt Williams. "Then it makes you angry," she said. "Because you know so much of it is not true. And when you're angry you want to fight back."

But she said the company stopped fighting and started listening. "We spent a lot of time listening to customers, associates, suppliers and even our critics," Williams said. "And they all helped us become a better company."

Wal-Mart rolled out $4 generic prescription drugs in September 2006. In 2007, Wal-Mart started opening in-store health clinics.  

Wal-Mart also has promoted environmentally friendly products while building more "green" stores.

The company's initiatives quieted critics.

Several organizations have named Wal-Mart as one of the best places to work, and it has also been named one of the "Most Admired Companies" by Fortune magazine.  

"We continue to drive change at Wal-Mart," Williams said.

She said her role was not about running campaigns for the company. It's "more about being a counselor. It's being at the table and helping drive change inside the business rather than simply trying to paint a better picture outside the business," she said.

Williams said she sticks with Wal-Mart because she feels as if she is part of something that is making a difference in the world.

"We help people who live paycheck to paycheck get by and in many cases have things they wouldn't have otherwise," Williams said. "I know it sounds like a PR person talking, but it's so real to us. ... Our customers count on us to make life better, and we think about that every day. I feel like I'm a small part of that impact."