Mercury Public Affairs: Wal-Mart & the Appearance of Evil

Wal-Mart spiesFor those of you who did not read Time’s piece on Wal-Mart’s latest PR goof, infiltrating union meetings Mata Hari style is just not cool. With allegations of bribing Mexican officials in the breeze, apparently Sam Walton’s dream may just be turning into a public nightmare. Is this a “worst case” for the corporate megalith, will America see the story as one of the little guys versus Wal-Mart and their high paid mouthpieces? You decide.

Rolling Thunderous PR Goofs

If you listen closely, ear to the ground , even here in Europe you can hear a distant rumbling. The noise and vibration, experts say it is like butter being churned underground, is apparently coming from Bentonville Cemetery in Arkansas. The seismically linked phenomena is in fact (well call it color) Sam Walton not just rolling over in his grave, but spinning like a top. The company he founded on good old fashioned principles of business, fairness, and value, has somehow become a horse of a different color.  The latest news, PR rep Stephanie Harnett dressing up as a reporter to allegedly spy on a closed press conference by a pro-labor group, Warehouse Workers United (WWU), opposed to a new Wal-Mart’s store – says something about cruel intentions, or something. Evil, be it real or perceived, is just not something you want your company associated with, or am I wrong?

It’s not unusual for huge corporations to have lots of enemies folks. Any company with as bit a footprint as Wal-Mart is simply going to step on some toes. And this bit of philosophy is just what this company, and 5000 others use to rationalize questionable behavior, even reprehensible acts. The story here is one of either Machiavellian corporate strategies, or imbecilic incompetence. Either way, public relations for the company seems to be the last thing on CEO Mike Duke’s mind. Aren’t we all tired of the megawealthy using the “we’re too big to be responsible for every employee action” – or “it was beyond our control” – these sorts of excuses?

We Disavow Any Knowledge…

This Mata Harnett, err…  Stephanie, that is, worked for Mercury Public Affairs, a firm representing Wal-Mart to get a rather controversial building permit to open a Wal-Mart in where else? LA’s Chinatown. We won’t get into the impact such an opening would have on the vendors there, but the Warehouse Workers United, that represents Wal-Mart’s workers in LA, decided to hold a closed press conference.

Mercury Public Affairs

Posing as a mild mannered reporter, under the name “Zoe Mitchell” Harnett told the union she was a student form USC. She allegedly obtained a 20 minute interview with one of the workers who discussed working conditions with her. The LA Times broke that story, but the story does not end there. Not only was this woman apparently shameless enough to slither into spy on workers concerned over their own company’s devilish doings, she came back days later proudly wearing her blue light special badge and gun – PR lady for Wal-Mart cards flying like spitballs in the faces of members of WWU, at another press conference.

Now, not only does the WWU website show the gal they call the “pretty little liar” on the site, but the signin sheet where she supposedly penned the name  “Zoe Mitchell” – yeaow! On top of this, yes there is some more, the WWU seems to have reason to label Mitchell, and her company Mercury, as some sort of racial profilers. The article on the WWU site calls attention to Mercury’s supposed “expertise” at “Latino Communications.”

Wal-Mart, according to the WWU site, has paid in excess of $1 million in fines for labor violations in warehouses in California this year. Their point being, that just as Mitchell was allegedly sent to spy on the workers, the WWU was vigorously trying to meet with company officials. Rather than talk, apparently Wal-Mart decided to gain information? But, of course, the corporation and Mercury deny any complicity in the “operation” – they have supposedly denounced Mitchell’s 007 activities.

WWU is hopping mad, as well they should be if all the allegations are true. Out of professional courtesy via our own PR company’s efforts, I will not post Wal-Mart PR Director Steven Restivo’s email here. You can find it to send him a note via the WWU site though. And Stephanie Hari’s, I mean Harnett’s Twitter feed? She is a PR slash “reporter” – but not like us, here’s her feed – @stephharnett. Oh. As for Mercury Public Affairs.

Occupylosangeles evil Wal-Mart mashupCorporate and Political Sticky

Looking at this PR firms leaderboard, it’s a bit more disgraceful, I think, to see a company employ either people or tactics like this, if the stories ring true, that is. Senator James Talent, Co-Chairmain of the company, Paul Bauer, Managing Director with his Sacramento lobbying connections, Fernando Ferrer, Co-Chairman and almost legendary US city revitalization leader, Hon. Max Sandlin, Co-Chairman and former US Congressman, and CEO Kieran Mahoney, who is by far one of America’s leading PR industry power brokers – for these gentlemen to be anywhere near this PR bloody nose seems – out of place to me. But here they are.

Let’s get down to business on this story, shall we? With Obama looking like a shoe in for a second term, a sort of political “cake dance” is going on now. The object, is obviously, one where the objective if you are either Wal-Mart, Mercury, or any player, is to not be left standing when the music stops. Or, when Obama stops his glowing smile and begins to pick the next lineup of loyal and useful subjects to “Knight” – oh, that’s Britain, right, we don’t do that in America. As obviously, white knights with sticky dark oil spots on their armor are just less likely to get the tap of Excalibur, even in America.

That’s why this is such a big PR goof, right? After all, nobody in the halls of power really cares what you or I think. Or what some Hispanic warehouse workers feel, isn’t that about right? That is, of course, unless it is time to vote. Let us hear your opinion, you have mine.

Before I forget, Mercury Public Affairs, has been council to: AT&T, Pfizer, Hilton Hotels, Wal-Mart, Mayo Clinic, Lockheed Martin, HCA – Hospital Corporation of America, and Sallie Mae, among the many others over the years. So you know, the WWU have on their side, as allies; Warehouse Workers for Justice in Chicago, CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), CCAEJ (Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice), and NDLON (National Day Labor Organizing Network), and one another, of course. (You cringed didn’t you Mike?)

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