From the “What were you thinking!” PR department

A bit of a kerfuffle has erupted with US retailing giant Walmart at the heart of it, as The Guardian reports:

Stephanie Harnett, a publicist working for Mercury Communications, which has been retained by Walmart to assist in its effort to open a new store in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles, claimed to be a student journalist called “Zoe Mitchell” when she turned up at the event on 6 June.

She then spoke to and recorded an interview with an activist from Warehouse Workers United, a group campaigning for worker improvements in the notoriously low wage industry where casual labor and poor health conditions are all too common.

The subterfuge only became apparent on Wednesday, when Harnett turned up at a different event and this time used her real name. She was spotted by members of WWU who recognised her and were stunned to see her handing out Mercury business cards with a completely different identity.

Walmart moved to distance itself from her actions on Thursday, and Mercury said neither it nor the retail giant had “approved, authorized or directed” her actions. It said she was no longer working for the firm.

Without insight from the publicist at the heart of this, you can’t tell from the Guardian’s report what went through her mind when she planned this stunt. It could be that she genuinely thought this was a good thing to do, suggesting that –

  1. She was the wrong person in the wrong job, and/or
  2. Mercury is lacking in the communication training it gives its employees and all working in PR on its behalf.

Still, strong reactions by Walmart and Mercury make it look very likely that this will be nipped in the bud.

An issue to manage rather than a crisis.

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Walmart on defensive after PR officer found ‘spying’ on union workers
Company denies having Stephanie Harnett pretend to be a reporter to interview workers on job conditions

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Additional reporting on this story:

[Later:] Another story of a PR kerfuffle has come to light today, this time in the UK. It doesn’t involve  a subterfuge but it certainly can have the label “What were you thinking!” attached to it.

The Scotman reports:

A nine year old girl who posts pictures of her school dinners on the internet has had her blog banned by Argyll and Bute Council.

  • Martha Payne posts pictures of her school dinners and rates them nutritionally
  • The ‘Never Seconds’ blog was started as a writing project with her father
  • Argyll and Bute Council banned the primary school pupil from updating her blog after a newspaper headline
  • Council’s decision has been met with ridicule and has received extensive coverage on Twitter

I just saw a report on this story on the lunchtime TV news so it would be likely for this to rapidly evolve, potentially into a full-blown crisis. Think of the ingredients: young girl, a blog, two million hits so far on this story, also raising money for charity, stopped by clueless council, etc.

But luckily, council leader Roddy McCuish has employed some good old common sense this lunchtime and reversed the ban.

PR crisis averted, now just an issue for a while with a great opportunity for the school to shape how this story evolves by helping young blogger Martha Payne achieve her charitable goals in particular. Make the most of the global attention!

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

    • Neville Hobson

      Thanks Stuart. I’m more interested in looking forward, helping develop a genuinely positive outcome in connection with young Martha Payne and her blog. The row about cluelessness and incompetence at the council can go on, of course, and changes that may happen as a result, but I wouldn’t want that to distract people from what’s more important about this story.

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