Monday, June 9, 2008, 12:43 PM

When the writing is on the wall...

…you are best serve to read it. That is what Wal Mart did when it announced in May it was enacting toy safety standards that exceed existing requirements. That is the definition of getting ahead in the race for public opinion. Like the rest of us, Wal Mart bet that government would stiffen toy safety standards after troubling media reports of unsafe toys manufactured in China flooding the U.S. market. Indeed, state governments were already pursuing a patchwork of regulatory schemes that were quite different from one another. Rather than drift with the tides of politics and public opinion, Wal Mart took the wheel and is now at the helm of industry best practices. Aggressive steps like this can put a company on offense with a single, well-executed strategy.

Wal Mart hasn’t always acted so nimbly. When state governments (like my home state of Maryland) attempted to mandate employee health care requirements on Wal Mart and Wal Mart alone, the retail giant hardly budged. A nationwide, agile network of anti-Wal-Mart activists who backed the proposal successfully portrayed the company as a corporate giant indifferent to the needs of its employees. Only a 2005 court ruling that invalidated the health care proposal could save Wal Mart in that instance. Judging from their response to the toy safety crisis, Wal Mart now recognizes the value of a pro-active and aggressive response to emerging crises.

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