Wal-Mart Case: Don’t Overlook the Institutional Ethics

By: Guest | June 19, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by  John-Henry Doucette

Yesterday Gini Dietrich blogged about the latest Wal-Mart PR debacle, but the subject isn’t quite finished.

The quick recap: Wal-Mart, PR firm Mercury Public Affairs, and its former employee Stephanie Harnett are facing a maelstrom of ethical issues after Harnett pretended to be a reporter.

Both Wal-Mart and Mercury denied any knowledge of Harnett’s undercover adventures, called it bad business, and she’s no longer on Mercury’s payroll. Good night, everybody!

Not so fast.

I find myself less interested in Harnett’s comeuppance than I am in how her former employer handles what she apparently gathered.

Here’s why:

The Guardian reported one worker at the first press conference talked to “Zoe” (Harnett) in a half-hour “interview.” Harnett took notes on his background and concerns. Some reports specify that she used a recorder to tape the interview or interviews.

So who has her notes and/or files?

Whatever the value of Harnett’s legwork, these are ill-gotten gains. I’m not sure whether these materials are still in the hands of Mercury, which did not respond to calls Friday and Monday.

Do they have written notes? A digital voice file of an “interviewed” worker? Did they review any of it? Is it enough to say, as Wal-Mart has, that it intends to “help ensure this type of activity is not repeated?”

I did reach Dr. Marie Hardin, director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State to get her take.

Here’s the meat of what she told me:

“I think the ethical thing to do is not to benefit from those notes, which would mean not to use those notes in a way that would put it at an advantage in its relationship with Wal-Mart and the union and with the person who was recorded. …

The ethical thing to do is to share all of the materials she gathered with the people she deceived. … 

I think all too often we think about ethics on individual terms, but there are also ethical issues at the institutional level. Those in many ways are more important because they send a message, I think, to the individuals, to their own employees.”

Harnett did not respond to emailed questions or a call to a cell phone number left on an old resume. According to The Guardian, one of the workers Harnett interviewed recalled:

“She said she was a storyteller from the heart.”

Since it made her Twitter profile, perhaps Hartnett believes that. Frankly, I hope she’ll be able to rebound, even if this was – some bloggers, naturally, have doubts – her own idea. We need to punish individual wrongdoing, but the example of Harnett is less important than the example set by her employer.

To me, failing to fully undo whatever a lie gained you or your client – however small its real or perceived value – is the more troubling matter to businesses that truly value ethical conduct.

John-Henry Doucette is a senior communications analyst for the public relations firm Vox Optima LLC. Prior to joining Vox Optima, John was a staff journalist at the Virginian-Pilot and a freelancer whose work has appeared in Parade, The New York Post, and Newsday.

  • I hadn’t even thought about what happens to all the data the woman gained in this debacle. Very good points indeed. I hope the union also realizes this so Wal-Mart does not uses the deceptive and ill-gotten information against it.

  • I agree with @Anthony_Rodriguez — I never even thought about what might happen to what she collected while “undercover.” That’s the heart of the ethical matter.

  • Hmm, quite the sticky wicket indeed. Ostensibly, Mercury would “own” the information, yes? 

    •  @jasonkonopinski Presumably, Jason. I hoped to ask them whether they had shared this with their client. Thanks for commenting.

    •  @jasonkonopinski Presumably, Jason. I hoped to ask them whether they had shared this with their client. Thanks for commenting.

  • John Barnett

    I believe the ethical “righting of the wrong” in this situation has challenges.  There’s the argument for turning over all the collected materials to the wronged parties with some sort of apologetic statement saying this is not how they want to do business (like they said in their official statement).  However, the result of that would most likely cause widespread heart attacks in the Legal Department as they envision a steady stream of potential lawsuits.
    The ethics expert says sharing is what needs to be done.  But what happens if company and client don’t agree on what the right course of action is?  And there’s always the chance the media will get their hands on the material too — lots of fun directions that could go …
    It may be a great Catch-22 example where the right thing to do leads to more problems and litigation for the company and client.  But avoiding the ethical response continues to give life to the PR crisis and negative press, which can still lead to more of the same.  I’m not sure what the best answer is, but will be interested to see what types of solutions the Spin Sucks community would suggest.  This whole situation makes for a great case study to watch unfold.
    And in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m one of John’s colleagues at Vox Optima, so I’m hoping this community will forgive a certain amount favor toward John’s post.

  • Thanks, John-Henry, for adding your perspective to this issue. It’s very complementary to what I wrote earlier in the week. And you bring up an excellent point about institutional ethics and what they should (or shouldn’t) do with the information this young lady obtained. Of course, this is assuming they have ethics, which would surprise me if they do, just based on my opinion that she was asked to do this and didn’t do it on her own accord.

  • DebraCaplick

    In all the discussions I see on this issue, I have to wonder at Stephanie’s age and experience level. On her LInkedIn Profile, she’s listed as a “Senior Associate” – yet if you add up her total PR experience, it’s only 14 months, and four of those months were an internship. Was she instructed to use these unethical tactics, or are we looking at a case of major responsibility handed to an inexperienced rookie, who failed to think things through? I have to wonder if this isn’t a symptom of the larger issue of our youth-obsessed profession, that assumes that anyone over 30 is too old and out of touch to work in PR or advertising?

    •  @DebraCaplick I think it’s more than that. I read another Gawker article this morning in which a former employee for a Wal-Mart PR firm said she was told to do these types of things. My bet is this young lady was instructed to do it and, when she got caught by the union, they fired here…with some sort of comp package to keep her mouth shut.

      •  @ginidietrich You’re probably right – but when agencies base their business model on such young, green professionals, how can we expect them to stand up to the unethical behavior of more senior people? This whole situation just leaves me with many more questions than answers.

        • John Barnett

           @DebraCaplick  @ginidietrich With that additional Gawker tidbit, it sounds like she wasn’t given the option of whether or not to accept her mission and was just disavowed when she was caught.
          And Debra makes an excellent point.  What kid just out of school is going toe-to-toe with well-established senior executives by calling them out for unethical tactics?  Might be a few, but I’d be willing to bet they’ll be looking for new work shortly after.  If a company uses unethical practices in the first place, why would they think twice about sacking the “new kid”?

        •  @John Barnett  @DebraCaplick I know I wouldn’t have gone toe to toe if I’d been ask to do that right out of college. But I certainly would have started looking for a new job. 

    •  @DebraCaplick Debra, The “reporter” did not seem to have much PR experience, at all, but young employees should get guidance before they head out in the field. Another question for Mercury might be: “Were there any concerns about or knowledge of the undercover work in the week between the first press conference and the second? Or did Mercury only act/find out because this was discovered by the union?” I’m not sure anyone who actively covered this matter in the trade press has asked. I’m not sure how youth obsessed the profession is, overall. In general, young people tend to be more affordable hires and, perhaps, more visible or relevant in some areas of representation, but my own experiences generally show that firms and clients value experience and a track record. Thanks for commenting.

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