Wal-Mart, which has made headlines recently for allegedly bribing Mexican officials, was implicated in another public scandal this week. Stephanie Harnett, a public relations associate representing the retail chain in its application to obtain a building permit in Los Angeles, posed as a student reporter in order to infiltrate a closed press conference held by a pro-labor group opposed to Wal-Mart’s new store.
While both Wal-Mart and the public relations firm employing Harnett have denounced her actions in response to the news, an anonymous tipster has told Gawker — which first published the news about Harnett on Thursday — that she worked for a PR firm that did virtually the same thing on Wal-Mart’s behalf several years ago.
Harnett worked for Mercury Public Affairs, a public relations firm representing Wal-Mart in its effort to obtain a controversial building permit to open a store in LA’s Chinatown. Warehouse Workers United, which represents Wal-Mart’s warehouse workers in LA, held a closed press conference on June 6. Harnett reportedly attended under the name “Zoe Mitchell” and introduced herself as a student at the University of Southern California “and a storyteller from the heart.” She then recorded a 20-minute interview with a warehouse worker about his working conditions, Elizabeth Brennan, a spokeswoman for Warehouse Workers United, told The Los Angeles Times.
Members of WWU realized that the Zoe Mitchell identity was false when Harnett appeared a week later in her public relations role. On Wednesday, Brennan saw Harnett again at a press conference announcing WWU’s upcoming demonstration against Wal-Mart’s proposed new location in LA’s Chinatown. Harnett handed out business cards identifying her as a senior associate for Mercury and told press that she represented Wal-Mart.
WWU’s website provides as evidence a photo of Harnett, a photo of the press sign-in sheet where she signed “Zoe Mitchell” on June 6, and a photo of the business card identifying her as a Mercury employee. As documented by this report from the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, Wal-Mart paid Mercury Public Affairs $60,000 for its work on the Chinatown location case.
Mercury swiftly condemned Harnett’s actions. Becky Warren, managing director for Mercury, told Gawker that Harnett’s actions were “in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Wal-Mart or Mercury.” She stated that “Stephanie is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision,” and that Harnett is no longer with the firm.
Wal-Mart also distanced itself from Harnett’s move. Spokesman Steven Restivo condemned Harnett’s behavior as “contrary to our values and the way we do business” in a statement.
It seems Harnett was posing as an earlier version of herself: Her public Linkedin profile indicates that she did in fact study journalism at USC, where she graduated in 2009, and worked in the Huffington Post’s citizen journalism department after graduation. Her profile states that she has worked at Mercury since September 2011.
A recent revelation, published Friday on Gawker, suggests that perhaps Harnett did not act entirely without the approval of her employer and client. A PR representative who worked for a firm that represented Wal-Mart in Ohio in 2005 told Gawker that he was also asked to attend anti-Wal-Mart community meetings under a false identity. The tipster wrote that she was asked to pose as a graduate student studying the effect of big-box stores on rural identity, then report to the company with a summary of the events at public meetings. She added that other employees did similar work. While all of their instructions came from the PR firm, not from Wal-Mart, she wrote that she believes these tactics are a common practice of the corporation.
“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,” the tipster wrote to Gawker in a statement published on the blog. “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.”
For Wal-Mart, the scandal comes amid other pending ethical allegations. The New York Times reported in April that Wal-Mart shut down an internal investigation into its business practices after its investigators found evidence that the company had bribed Mexican officials to obtained building permits in many locations throughout Mexico. According to an internal review by Wal-Mart’s attorneys, the corporation may be at risk of facing similar allegations of bribery in other nations, Reuters reported earlier this week.
Wal-Mart has a long history of difficulty with labor unions, and has faced censure from the National Labor Relations Board for anti-union tactics, such as refusing to bargain with workers and pre-emptively closing stores where workers planned to unionize. Proposed Wal-Mart locations have frequently been the target of activist opposition campaigns.
The Harnett case is also not Wal-Mart’s first PR-related scandal. In a 2006 campaign, Wal-Mart was discovered to have used paid employees posing as regular consumers to create a fake blog promoting Wal-Mart. They were assisted by the PR firm Edelman, MSNBC reports.