Yesterday, Stephanie Harnett, a young staffer at Mercury Public Affairs in L.A. who was working on behalf of Wal-Mart, was fired after she was caught posing as a reporter in order to spy on a press conference of a pro-labor group. Did one young staffer go rogue? Or is this standard operating procedure?
When the story went big yesterday, Harnett was swiftly thrown under the bus. Wal-Mart itself called Harnett's act "contrary to our values and the way we do business;" Mercury, her employer, said "was in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Walmart or Mercury," and fired her. Stephanie herself hasn't spoken publicly. (Stephanie: email me.) It's true that sending paid flacks out to pose as journalists is A) wildly unethical and B) stupid, considering the fallout when one of them is discovered. But the fact that an action is unethical and stupid has not traditionally been seen as an insurmountable barrier, in PR. Perhaps that's why some inside the industry voiced suspicions that Harnett was being scapegoated.
Wal-Mart itself has hardly been exempt from PR scandals in the past. The most memorable example was the 2006 uproar over a fake astroturf campaign (in which paid employees pose as regular folks) called "Wal-Marting Across America," engineered by the massive PR firm Edelman. Wal-Mart—a tremendous company, with countless PR subcontractors doing its bidding in communities across America—says that "We insist that all our vendors conduct themselves in a way that is transparent and honest." How honest?
Without hearing Stephanie Harnett's own version of what happened, there's no way to say whether or not she was ordered to do what she did. But after we posted our story yesterday, we heard from someone who says that she worked for a PR firm in Ohio in 2005 that used virtually the same tactics, on behalf of Wal-Mart:
My firm had me pose as a grad student studying the effect of big-box stores on rural identity, attend two anti-WalMart, open-to-the-public community meetings, take notes, and call the company immediately afterward with a summary. Other employees at my firm did similar work to the same end. I do want to be clear: my instructions to pretend to be someone else came to me from my firm, NOT from the Wal-Mart rep. It's my understanding that the company does this kind of sketchy legwork in every single town with any kind of anti Wal-Mart sentiment, gathering, etc., and there must be dozens of flacks who have done variations of this.
I seriously doubt some flack thought to infiltrate Wal-Mart and pose as a journalist on her own when I received such a close variation on these instructions from my own then-bosses seven or eight years ago.
The meetings in question, she says, were city council meetings about issuing permits to Wal-Mart in small-town Ohio. "What strikes me is that with how totally innocuous and publicly accesible the meetings I attended were," she says, "they still felt they should send someone to 'spy.' ... They didn't offer a lot of interpretation-type info to me as a 26-year-old, just an Arkansas number to call when I was finished with the meetings. I read them my notes and everyone said thanks and hung up."
That is surely dirty.