Friday was the company's annual meeting, and, as expected, officials had to address the ongoing firestorm of criticism of Wal-Mart's practices, and the well-organized national campaigns [link to wakeupwalmart.com and walmartwatch.com] backed by labor and other social justice groups. Did CEO Lee Scott assure his employees that he was listening, and that Wal-Mart was doing everything it could to make the company a more humane place to work? Did he promise to unveil a compensation plan that would keep workers and their families off welfare? No, Scott, who last week denied reports that his job was in danger, did something even more astonishing: he blamed the workers themselves for the recent spate of public relations disasters. "You better be ready to be better," he told them. In another gem of sage advice, Scott offered that "associates" should be "doing the right things and doing things right."
Though there were the usual raucous cheers--among workers, only true believers get to attend the meeting--the mood of the crowd was not quite blindly adoring. Shareholders and workers applauded Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, when she chided the company for having so few women on its thirteen-person board of directors (only one), and called on the company to disclose race and gender data on the distribution of stock options. Still, her resolution was voted down. (Socially conscious resolutions usually lose, not just at Wal-Mart, but at most companies.)
In other news, Wal-Mart is hoping to win back the good will of the American people by...sponsoring a reality show. Admittedly, the strategy has worked for Anna Nicole Smith and Kirstie Alley, both of whom did have some image problems, albeit mild ones: they were has-beens of less-than-svelte girth. Wal-Mart has far more to overcome.