Wal-Mart and one of its PR agencies have found themselves in hot water after an employee of the agency posed as a reporter and attended a labor group meeting in Los Angeles. This misadventure plays right into the public's most negative opinions of PR practitioners.
As first reported by Gawker, “reporter” Stephanie Harnett infiltrated a press conference held by Warehouse Workers United, a labor group working to improve conditions for Wal-Mart’s L.A. warehouse workers. In actuality, Harnett was an associate of Mercury Public Affairs, which is being paid $60,000 to assist Wal-Mart in its potential store opening in L.A.’s Chinatown neighborhood.
According to reports, Harnett attended a June 6 press conference under the alias of “Zoe Mitchell” and conducted a 20-minute, taped interview with a warehouse worker, asking detailed questions about the company’s work conditions. Harnett showed up again at a June 13 press conference and handed out business cards with “Stephanie Harnett” on them and saying she works for Wal-Mart.
In a statement, Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said, “These actions were unacceptable, misleading and wrong. Our culture of integrity is a constant at Wal-Mart and by not properly identifying herself, this individual's behavior was contrary to our values and the way we do business.”
Mercury Public Affairs has responded as well, with managing director Becky Warren confirming to Gawker that Harnett is no longer with the company: “Stephanie is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision. She showed very poor judgment and Mercury takes full responsibility. We are taking the necessary disciplinary actions. This is an isolated incident that has never happened before and will not happen again.”
To say this was a lapse in judgment would be an understatement. These actions go against the core ethical values most PR pros live by.
PRSA chair and CEO Gerard Corbett tells PR News that he hopes PR professionals can learn from Wal-Mart’s blunder. “Thank you Wal-Mart for another teachable moment,” Corbett says. “Now please make note: Transparency and truth reign. Stunts like this never work, and people who instigate them will eventually never work. Wal-Mart and the PR agency involved need to do a self-examination to assess how and why this occurred. Higher heads need to be accountable, and there is lots of blame to go around.”