Some questions about the Wal-Mart, Mercury Public Affairs incident

Yesterday, Gawker published a story about a young woman they referred to as a 'PR flack' who was fired for posing as a reporter in order to spy on a pro-labour group's closed meeting.

If you're not familiar with the story, here's the recap:

Wal-Mart is in the process of trying to open a new location in Los Angeles's Chinatown district. A number of stakeholders, including local labour groups, are opposed. So Wal-Mart hired Mercury Public Affairs to help them smooth things over with stakeholders and pave the way for the new store.

One of those groups is Warehouse Workers United, which is trying to improve working conditions for Wal-Mart's warehouse workers in the region. Last week, they held a closed press conference. One of the registered attendees was one 'Zoe Mitchell', who described herself as a student reporter from USC. In addition to attending the event, 'Zoe' conducted a 20-minute interview with one of the warehouse workers, which she tape recorded. Curiously, the worker noted that 'Zoe' was shaking throughout the interview, apparently nervous or anxious.

Fast forward to June 13. There's another news conference on the Wal-Mart issue. Except this time, 'Zoe' is there handing out business cards and saying she works for Wal-Mart. Oh, and the name on the business cards isn't Zoe Mitchell, but rather Stephanie Harnett, a senior associate with (you guessed it) Mercury Public Affairs.

The worker who recognized the woman from both events outed her and it quickly became a media and social media story. Both Wal-Mart and Mercury have moved quickly to distance themselves from Harnett and the questionable behaviour behind this incident. Wal-Mart spokesperson Steven Restivo told Gawker:

"These actions were unacceptable, misleading and wrong. Our culture of integrity is a constant at Walmart and by not properly identifying herself, this individual's behaviour was contrary to our values and the way we do business. We insist that all our vendors conduct themselves in a way that is transparent and honest and we will reinforce that expectation to help ensure this type of activity is not repeated."

But the 'throwing under the bus' doesn't stop there. Mercury swiftly terminated Harnett and gave the following statement:

"The action taken by Ms. Harnett was in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Walmart or Mercury. 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."

The spokesperson, Becky Warren, went on to say:

 "I can confirm that she is no longer with the company."

After following this story for the past 24 hours or so, I've got a few nagging questions as well as an observation or two.

  • First, I hate to quibble over semantics, but public relations and public affairs aren't the same thing. Mercury is a public affairs firm and, as such, helps its clients achieve their public policy objectives. So let's not be too quick to label them as PR.
  • If Harnett got the idea to attend the meeting on her own, that's clearly poor judgment, questionable ethics and all of that. But what if she was asked to pose as a reporter by someone else? Why was she so nervous if it was her idea to go? There's no reason to pose this question other than a vague feeling of unease after reading the news coverage and witnessing the prompt and definitive ass covering by the two corporate entities involved.
  • What did Mercury do with the output from the meeting she infiltrated as Zoe Mitchell? The tape recorded interview? The notes, observations, insights?
  • Why haven't we heard from Harnett? 
  • Visiting Mercury's web page, there's no mention of this incident. No apology. Nothing.  

It will be interesting to see if there's another shoe to drop. Maybe we've heard the last from Stephanie and Zoe for awhile. Or maybe there's more to the story? Time will tell.