Gini Dietrich

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

By: Gini Dietrich | June 18, 2012 | 

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?


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.

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142 responses to “Wal-Mart in Hot Water: Honesty and Transparency an Issue”

  1. Oh for Pete’s sake, when are they gonna learn?!?

  2. M_Koehler says:

    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.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @M_Koehler I’m pretty sure she was instructed to do so. You don’t come up with this on your own, at that age. But maybe she was trying to impress her bosses. Who knows?

      • M_Koehler says:

         @ginidietrich As I stated before, it’s incredibly stupid for companies to try this kind of stuff in this day and age when you cannot hide anything anymore.

  3. KenMueller says:

    Just sounds to me like she did this with some sort of guidance. Either way, the culture of that firm either allowed or dictated that behavior.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @KenMueller I think so, too. That makes me sad. Geoff would tell me it’s public affairs and it should be expected. But it still makes me sad.

      • KenMueller says:

         @ginidietrich I don’t buy the “it should be expected” thing. We do that with politicians all the time and it drives me batty. I’ll point out that a politician clearly lied in trying to get elected, and I hear “But they all do it. It’s expected during an election.” Yeah, it’s expected when it’s your candidate, but if the other candidate does it, you’d crucify him. I hate the double standard.

  4. 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.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Anthony_Rodriguez It’s like the Chrysler F bomb thing all over again. Except that poor guy actually made the mistake (accidentally, of course) and was thrown under the bus.

      •  @ginidietrich @Anthony_Rodriguez The sad reality is that, for the most part, people outside of the communications industry either won’t pay attention to what this means or simply don’t care.
        The target WalMart consumer will continue patronizing the brand less by choice and more by circumstance. I see it here all the time. 
        I don’t shop at Wal-Mart because I don’t cotton to their policies and business practices. 

        • ginidietrich says:

           @jasonkonopinski  @Anthony_Rodriguez The only advantage of LA is there are other places to shop, like there are in Chicago. It’s the smaller towns that have no choices and that sucks.

        •  @jasonkonopinski  @ginidietrich I’m with you Jason. I will not spend a penny at Wal-Mart because of it’s policies and practices.
          But even if you live in a big city like LA or Chicago and have choices, and some people don’t spend their money there anymore because of this or any one of the number of incidents Wal-Mart is involved in, people of lesser means will still spend their money at Wal-Mart because that is the only place they can afford.
          The funny thing is, I used to work at Target when I was a teen, and the prices are not that different. I still don’t think there is that big of a difference. It seems to me that it is a opportunity other retailers could take advantage of. ‘Hey shopper, look at our prices. They are comparable to Wal-Mart, and without all the deplorable tactics used to cut costs.’

        • ginidietrich says:

           @Anthony_Rodriguez  @jasonkonopinski I love Target.

        •  @ginidietrich  @Anthony_Rodriguez Me too. No shame in that. 🙂 

    • commoncents says:

      I agree.  This isn’t Sam Walton’s family store any longer. Like a cancer they continue to grow grow grow and multiply until it is too late to stop them..  They will do whatever it takes to beat the competition, and not simply by lowering their price by 10 cents. Just like the other giants in business, they are too big.  At that point business ethics have flown out the skylights.  They need PR firms that will polish tarnished business practices. I can’t imagine why consumers continue to shop there.
      The Unions who deal with Wal-Mart should know what they are dealing with… and what they are dealing with is certainly not a Yellow Smiley Face.   If Wal-Mart did throw the girl undrer the bus, think what they would do if it was a really big embarrassment….. like losing to a Union.

  5. bobledrew says:

    There’s another allegation (anonymous) of this sort of behavior on Gawker: 
    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. 

  6. magriebler says:

    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.

    • ginidietrich says:

       @magriebler I really hope it’s not the latter! It really pains me that people behave this way. I know it’s indicative of human nature, and not just PR pros, but for some reason, we tend to get a lot of the news when it comes to these sorts of things. Why can’t we just do our jobs ethically? 

  7. Walmart is obviously the Klout of retailers…

  8. cbuseric says:

    @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.

  9. KelleeMagee says:

    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.  

    • ginidietrich says:

       @KelleeMagee Totally agree! It’s how I run my firm. I hope that everyone here would be comfortable saying, “I’m not going to do that and here is why.” Of course, we’re pretty ethical so I’d like to think that’d never happen. But I know we’re not normal. My friend worked for a firm that required these kinds of practices. He stood up to leadership, told them no, and then had to quit his job. Sometimes, when we’re young, we don’t have the confidence or experience to be able to say, “I don’t think this is right and I”m not going to do it.” I’m not sure I would have, had I been asked to do something like this. 

      • KelleeMagee says:

         @ginidietrich We need to TEACH our young people that they *should* have the confidence to say “this isn’t right.” We most definitely need more ethics training as a part of college-level PR / business courses (and in plenty of other industries as well!) As a society, we need to reward whistleblowers. (If a junior level job requires you to do something unethical to keep it, you’d better think seriously about what price you’re putting on your own reputation: Can your integrity be bought for $40,000? $100k? $250k? A million? Plenty of people can, apparently.) Ultimately, all any of us have is our reputation, and she’ll be professionally scarred for a long time because she didn’t stand up for what she knew was right … *or* because she didn’t learn that ethical behavior is important, and what was ‘right and wrong’ in this instance. Either the system failed her, or she failed herself, or a little bit of both. So very sad.  

  10. kelleygibson says:

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

  11. cloudspark says:

    @John_Trader1 @spinsucks please – any agency that says an junior account employee “went rogue” is just plain lying.

    • John_Trader1 says:

      @cloudspark I agree with you 100% – doubt she will squeal about it if she wants to work in industry again although that’s highly unlikely.

  12. jgombita says:

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

  13. Lisa Gerber says:

    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!) 

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Lisa Gerber Yeah…it’s the whole “we’ll throw you under the bus if you make a mistake” culture that kills me. Hard lesson for this young woman to learn.

  14. jgombita says:

    See June 1st @globeandmail article @steve_dodd: Wal-Mart chairman: Integrity ‘is our business’

  15. ginidietrich says:

    @KelleeMagee Love that. Yes!

  16. NickAnselmo1 says:

    @ginidietrich Lol, that’s Walmart for you!

  17. RebeccaTodd says:

    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. 

    • ginidietrich says:

       @RebeccaTodd I think she did, too. I just don’t think you have the experience or confidence, right out of school, to decide to go into a union press conference and make up a name and pose as a reporter. She even had a list of questions she asked one of the workers. I really doubt she came up with that on her own.

  18. KevinVandever says:

    “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.

  19. zenaweist says:

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

  20. bdorman264 says:

    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?’ 

  21. OSoyombo says:

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

  22. commoncents says:

    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?

  23. OSoyombo says:

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

  24. 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. 

    • ginidietrich says:

       @annedreshfield I think she was pretty much SOL no matter what. They’re not saying whether or not she was fired, but how do you fire someone if you asked them to do it? I just shake my head.

  25. TheJackB says:

    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…

  26. ginidietrich says:

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

    • KreeBeau says:

      @ginidietrich True & there are regions that need the products Wal-Mart sells. They likely won’t change unless it affects the bottom line.

  27. patmrhoads says:

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

  28. ginidietrich says:

    @GeneneMurphy Do you think she did it under guidance?

    • GeneneMurphy says:

      @ginidietrich It’s clear she didn’t benefit from the right kind of guidance (or expectations). Motivations reveal much.

      • ginidietrich says:

        @GeneneMurphy Or that she was told, specifically, to do it and then got thrown under the bus

        • GeneneMurphy says:

          @ginidietrich (Smiling.) Certainly possible. Pairing an exec who’d make an “immature decision” for a high-profile client seems suspect too.

  29. ginidietrich says:

    @vargasl This stuff makes me nuts!

  30. wonderoftech says:

    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!

  31. ginidietrich says:

    @debdobson Sigh…

  32. ginidietrich says:

    @victordlamini Yes. Yes, they are

  33. ginidietrich says:

    @bdorman264 Again

  34. brenniam says:

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

  35. Tinu says:

    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. 

    • ginidietrich says:

       @Tinu The funny thing is, if you go to the union’s website (this is all over it), they say, “We’ve been trying to get Wal-Mart to talk to us for months.” So they finally get Wal-Mart to pay attention, but it’s through the use of spies? They’re not happy…as you can imagine.

      • HowieSPM says:

         @ginidietrich @Tinu kind of funny the Waltons are ok with bribery and threats to force stores into neighborhoods on the back of government services (like aid to the poor and healthcare) at the same time they are donating money to candidates looking to screw most of their employees.
        And they frown on someone selling pot on the street instead of going the fraud and government embezzlement rout because White Collar Crime is a whole lot better than Blue Collar Crime?

  36. HowieSPM says:

    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.

  37. ginidietrich says:

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

  38. kamichat says:

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

  39. janwong says:

    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. 

  40. rdopping says:

    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………;-)

  41. PaulLint says:

    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 😉

    • ginidietrich says:

       @PaulLint I’d be surprised if she doesn’t have an attorney working with her right now. Either you’re right and she got a package to keep her mouth shut or she’s about to sue them.

  42. ginidietrich says:

    @arthury Thank you, sir!

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

  44. ottogrl says:

    @JGoldsborough excited for #pr20chat!

  45. JGoldsborough says:

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

  46. PRSASCC says:

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

  47. jspepper says:

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

  48. rachaelseda says:

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

  49. 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.

  50. ginidietrich says:

    @JGoldsborough HOw’d the chat go last night?

  51. caviar_diva says:

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

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

  53. […] 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 […]

  54. […] 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 […]

  55. […] 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 […]

  56. […] 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 […]

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