Wal-Mart seems to be pursuing with gusto its strategy of liberalizing its public image.
Though it may seem incongruous with founder Sam Walton's ideas, the company appears to be taking serious steps to make its operations more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Not only can such initiatives only help Wal-Mart's reputation, but they are good for business, as well. Everybody wins.
Al Gore made an appearance at Wal-Mart headquarters this month to talk to staffers about environmental threats, an occurrence that until recently would have seemed impossible outside of a campaign stop. And this week, Wal-Mart hired Harriet Hentges, a former nun who has held top posts for groups like the League of Women Voters and the US Institute of Peace, as its "senior director, stakeholder engagement," charged, the company says, to help guide and explain its positions on issues like the environment and labor relations.
Still, Wal-Mart has had mixed success on other fronts. The company-funded Working Families for Wal-Mart, a putative third-party support group, has gotten scant positive press for the company, but it did make the news last week by launching a Web site, paidcritics.com, that attacks critics from groups like Wake-Up Wal-Mart, which, in turn, set up its own site: abunchofgreedyrightwingliarswhoworkforwalmart.com.
These trench battles may be a cost associated with Wal-Mart's hiring a stable of former political campaign veterans to handle portions of its reputation. Even while it receives plaudits for truly good actions like its charitable response to Hurricane Katrina, the company is not chary of playing hardball with union opponents. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, Wal-Mart should be savvy enough to recognize that successful PR ultimately means committing itself to forward-thinking conduct in its public affairs, and in all of its activities.