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Gini Dietrich

Wal-Mart in Hot Water: Honesty and Transparency an Issue

By: Gini Dietrich | June 18, 2012 | 
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You know how we talk about transparency on the web?

As in, if you’re working with a client and you promote their products or services, you need to disclose it? Or, if you’re doing the same on behalf of the company you work for, you’d better be darn sure it’s indicated that you work there?

In fact, according to the FTC, it is required to disclose your relationship with the company you’re promoting.

But you know what? This goes for offline, too. We’re in an age of transparency and faking it doesn’t cut it.

Enter Wal-Mart and Their PR Firm

You likely heard the news earlier this year that Wal-Mart allegedly covered up the bribes they paid Mexican officials in exchange for getting building permits faster and other favors to help it aggressively expand in the region.

Well, it seems they’re at it again. This time in Los Angeles.

They want to open a store in Chinatown, but like they did in Chicago, the unions are putting up a pretty big stink in opposition of it, complaining of unfair working conditions.

One of the unions, Warehouse Workers Union, held a news conference on June 6 in which a young woman named “Zoe Mitchell” posed as a University of Southern California student who was a school reporter and “storyteller at heart.”

In fact, she conducted a 20 minute interview with a warehouse worker about low wages and tough conditions in his job, recording the entire conversation.

No harm, no foul, right?

Wrong.

It turns out “Zoe Mitchell” was at another news conference later in the week, where an activist pointed out she was not, in fact, a reporter, but an employee for Mercury, the Wal-Mart public affairs and lobbying PR firm.

The Statements

The managing director for Mercury was swift to issue a statement:

This action was in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Wal-Mart or Mercury. This young woman 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.

From all accounts, it looks as though the young woman has been fired.

Steve Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesperson, also said:

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. We insist that all our vendors conduct themselves in a way that is transparent and honest and we will reinforce that expectation to ensure this type of activity is not repeated.

Except the culture of integrity seems to be fabricated, as we’ve learned from the Mexican bribery scandal.

The Transparency Issue

I was waffling on whether or not this young lady did this on her own accord, until a friend and former colleague reminded me, after he left Arment Dietrich, he went to work for a firm that required their employees to do unethical, and sometimes even unlawful, things in order to keep their jobs.

Perhaps she did act on her own accord, thinking she could get ahead at work if she got information from the union workers that would be helpful in their fight to get Wal-Mart into Chinatown. Or perhaps she was told to do it by a supervisor who now has thrown her under the bus.

Either way, it’s unethical, it’s wrong, and it’s completely not transparent.

Disclose everything you do – online and off. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the law.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

132 comments
caviar_diva
caviar_diva

@Steveology @ginidietrich that's par for Wal-Mart, why I don't shop there.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@JGoldsborough HOw'd the chat go last night?

prosperitygal
prosperitygal

Having been a vendor of Walmart I could curl your nose hairs with the %^&* they get away with behind closed doors.  She was thrown under the bus - no doubt.

Latest blog post: | who is michele price

rachaelseda
rachaelseda

@NancyCawleyJean thanks for the Rt girl! How are you?!

jspepper
jspepper

@JGoldsborough The Gawker links are much better ones - and I'm tired of PR people taking the holier than thou approach to PR. #pr20chat

PRSASCC
PRSASCC

@selena_cameron @WalMart Hey, @ginidietrich wrote this article. She'll be speaking at one of our future meetings. #pr20chat

JGoldsborough
JGoldsborough

@valeriesimon Hi. Hope you can make it. How u been? #pr20chat

ottogrl
ottogrl

@JGoldsborough excited for #pr20chat!

PaulLint
PaulLint

This really sounds like the people up above saying can you dig up this information for us and once she got caught they turned there back on her. Wouldn't be surprised if she kicked up a fuss she would get some sort of compensation package... that is if she isn't actually guilty ;)

rdopping
rdopping

I ate too many fries on Sunday while watching Germany trounce Denmark in the European Cup. And I feel really bad about it but not because I work for Heinz, McCain and the Brazen Head (the pub I was at). I liked it too.

 

In all seriousness, full disclosure is a rare beast. If you do that then you have some serious integrity. The trouble is that the world is so cynical and because of clowns like Wal-Mart we have no idea what to believe anymore. @ginidietrich please make it all go away.........;-)

janwong
janwong

The incident sounds real fishy and really, for the woman to act on her own as an employee, it's either she is hungry for a promotion (to show that she's smart) or she was offered a deal with Walmart / the Agency. 

kamichat
kamichat

@vargasl seems liked the old days, re: WalMart, right?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@HowellMarketing I keep meaning to tell you, your daughter is GORGEOUS

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

No way Walmart and the Agency did not do this on purpose. Walmart and every one of their media vendors is ALWAYS guilty until proven innocent. This is per Supreme Court Case My Little Pony Vs Walmart 1998 when it was proven the Waltons are part of an ultra satanic coven bent on destroying the world. Either that or they are just rich greedy dumbasses. One or the other.

 

Seriously (well I was serious already) what staffer would do this on their own to get ahead? What young employee just grateful to have a job today when the young jobless is 25% and above in the US would ever risk being unemployed. I would watch to see if this woman doesn't get a 6 figure payment in a canary island bank to take the fall.

Tinu
Tinu

The law is the law. Doesn't get more straightforward than that. It amazes me how many people get in trouble when pure self interest would dictate that they completely avoid the situation. Especially when there are often other ways of dealing with these situations that are completely legal And ethical. 

brenniam
brenniam

@ginidietrich Her name is Stephanie Harnett - will be interesting if she comes out and throws Walmart under the bus!

wonderoftech
wonderoftech

Hi Gini, This reminds me of the political town hall meetings of a few years ago where people were planted with prepared questions so political candidates could give their controlled answers. You're right, we need to be transparent, it's not just a good idea, it's required.

 

In the tech community, it's important to reveal if you are reviewing a device, an app or other tech product or service that has been provided to you for review. When an affiliate link is in an article, people need to disclose that information. Pinterest recently got in trouble for including affiliate links with members' pins. The ironic thing was that Pinterest could have done it without any problems if they had just disclosed it.

 

Thanks for this important reminder, Gini!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@GeneneMurphy Do you think she did it under guidance?

patmrhoads
patmrhoads

@econwriter5 Thanks for the RT. Have a great week!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@KreeBeau I guess you get so big you don't know what the left and right hands are doing?

TheJackB
TheJackB

I have been a part of discussions where people think that they can whatever they want provided it can be classified as investigative journalism.  Of course they stretch that definition/description in all sorts of ways...

Latest blog post: I Have My Spoon

annedreshfield
annedreshfield

I'm surprised Mercury put out such a definitive statement, when a lot of people (those who know the industry and those who don't) think her actions were, at the very least, influenced by them. It's a shame that she may have been fired just because Mercury's shady practices were found out. On the other hand, I wonder if they would have fired her for *not* agreeing to do it? It's just a shame. 

OSoyombo
OSoyombo

@shonali @ginidietrich an AE's working life is an enviable one, isn't it ? ( RE: Walmart Story ) #ToungeSomeWhatIncheek

commoncents
commoncents

The Unions that deal with Wal-Mart should know who they are dealing with.....and who they are dealing with is certainly not a Yellow Smiley Face.  If Wal-Mart or it's PR firm did authorize that girl to  get information in an unethical or maybe illegal way, and then threw her under the bus to save their face......... imagine what those two would do if they were part of a really big embarrassment......like losing to a Union?

OSoyombo
OSoyombo

@shonali from a casual observers perspective, they've seemed invisible-- despite the barrage of bad press over the years.

bdorman264
bdorman264

Everything I do? Yikes, that might get a little uncomfortable for the both of us.....

 

Whereas on the surface it might not appear to be that big of a deal; it's just another example of why people are becoming jaded and the trust factor keeps getting chipped away. The line in the sand seem to keep getting washed away every time the tide comes in. 

 

How hard is it, to just do 'the right thing?' 

zenaweist
zenaweist

@jasonkonopinski @ginidietrich feeling the love this morning and right back at 'cha both!

KevinVandever
KevinVandever

"Our culture of integrity is a constant at Wal-Mart" Well, they got that right. The culture is low, and questionable, but it is, at least, constant. I highly doubt this woman acted on her own. Wal-Mart promptly threw her under the metro gold line train that runs right through Chinatown. Wal-Mart is probably feeling the pressure that a Target is being built in a high traffic shopping area downtown. Many other retailers are trying to get down here, too as the number of folks willing to live downtown is rapidly growing (it happened a few years ago, about the time I moved down here. Coincidence? I think not). I wonder, though, how much of Wal-Mart attempted is being done by others and we just haven't caught it, yet.

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Again, I am not PR pro and don't know your secret handshake.  But this makes me shake my head...and people think salespeople are unethical! :)

 

My thought- she certainly did this under guidance.  It seems it was a clear expectation of her job.  I can only assume the same tactic has been used successfully many times over. So often, while the big picture comes top down, it is the low level (and often young) employees who actually do the crime, and unfortunately pay the price. 

NickAnselmo1
NickAnselmo1

@ginidietrich Lol, that's Walmart for you!

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

I'd bet it's a "don't ask, don't tell culture." Do what you have to do to get the job done, and don't get caught. (Because we won't be there to catch your back!) 

jgombita
jgombita

WalMart recently re-elected entire board @steve_dodd. This was post "Mexico bribery scanda" & despite talk of it GOING DOWN in blogosphere

cloudspark
cloudspark

@John_Trader1 @spinsucks please - any agency that says an junior account employee "went rogue" is just plain lying.

kelleygibson
kelleygibson

@ginidietrich Maybe we need a tutorial on what PR stands for-apparently Wal-Mart/Mercury thought Poser Reporter was the definition!

KelleeOReilly
KelleeOReilly

If Mercury & WalMart are knowingly throwing her under the bus, that's awful - but more than an "immature decision" - this was purposeful deception.executed by a woman who was most certainly old enough to know better (and when you know better, you do better.) Lying about your identity? She was a PR person, not a CIA Agent - you don't have to have 25 years of professional experience to know that's wrong. *If* she is being thrown under the bus, she should speak up for herself - but that doesn't excuse the fact that she *should* have spoken up inside Mercury and objected to the unethical approach to the work for the client. Let this be a lesson to us all: don't abdicate responsibility for your own ethical reputation to anyone, period.  

cbuseric
cbuseric

@ginidietrich Yup. No way for Mercury to duck responsibility by blaming it on a rogue PR pro. Anyone w/ a brain sees right thru it.

TonyBennett
TonyBennett

Walmart is obviously the Klout of retailers...

magriebler
magriebler

Wal-Mart isn't alone, sadly. Too many corporations still believe they're above the law and beyond reproach in pursuit of the bottom line. It's critical that those of us working in the field call on our PR colleagues to hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. These kinds of stunts give all of us a bad name. And, sadly, we'll never know whether "Zoe" learned a life lesson the hard way or decided that in the future she'll just have to get better at covering her tracks.Thanks for an important post.

bobledrew
bobledrew

There's another allegation (anonymous) of this sort of behavior on Gawker: http://gawker.com/5918736/how-many-more-undercover-wal+mart-pr-spies-have-there-been?tag=wal_mart 

 

The only thing that I can say is that I bet Spin Sucks is getting PLENTY of visitors from Bentonville, Arkansas today. When I wrote about Wal-mart some time ago, the sudden spike in traffic from AK was remarkable. 

 

Unfortunately, Wal-Mart seems to have a pattern of stepping over the ethical lines when it comes to PR and public affairs. 

Anthony_Rodriguez
Anthony_Rodriguez

I tend to side with your observation that this junior member was thrown under the bus to save the asses of the PR firm and Wal-Mart. It's a scuzzy and skeezy thing to do to this girl. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart will not bear any of the consequences of it. The firm, maybe. But Wal-Mart is so big that people know it does unethical things all of the time but they still patron the stores. It just doesn't matter to them.

M_Koehler
M_Koehler

Just when you think things couldn't get any worse. What in the?! This is just incredibly stupid on the PR's firms part if they really did instruct her to do this. In this day and age where it is IMPOSSIBLE to cover anything up, people still do try to do this stuff? How is this benefiting anyone least of which WM who this firm is representing? Instead they've made a horrible tense situation worse. Unbelievable.

Trackbacks

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

  2. […] wrong, posing as a reporter at a “closed” press conference given by a union. And smarter folks than I have weighed […]

  3. […] forward. But please don’t try to become a videographer or surgeon overnight. Most PR fails in recent social media history came out of employing non-experts to do an expert’s […]

  4. […] and to do business in the country. And then again when their PR firm (a different one from 2006) posed as journalists at a news conference to try to persuade union workers to allow them to open a store in Chinatown in Los […]

  5. […] and to do business in the country. And then again when their PR firm (a different one from 2006) posed as journalists at a news conference to try to persuade union workers to allow them to open a store in Chinatown in Los […]

  6. […] forward. But please don’t try to become a videographer or surgeon overnight. Most PR fails in recent social media history came out of employing non-experts to do an expert’s […]