In Wal-Mart case, does firing the "reporter" matter more than what she gathered?
Editor’s Note: This is a re-post of John Doucette’s article appearing on the popular PR blog, “Spin Sucks.”
Last week, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan reported that Stephanie Harnett, whose old Twitter bio proclaimed her to be “a storyteller at heart,” fibbed on behalf of a public relations firm:
“[O]ne labor group says that an employee of a PR firm working for Wal-Mart actually posed as a reporter in order to infiltrate one of their meetings.”
Nolan reported that when a labor group challenging Wal-Mart warehouse conditions in an L.A. community held a press conference on June 6, Harnett represented herself as a University of Southern California student “named” Zoe Mitchell. She even signed in under that name, leaving a contact number that doesn’t check out – it appears to be her cell number with the wrong area code.
As the union told Nolan, Harnett hit another press conference portraying herself as a Wal-Mart rep named, well … what her name actually is. Several reports have noted that Harnett indeed is a former USC student journalist (Go Trojans!), but, at the time of her visits, she worked for Mercury on behalf of Wal-Mart.
Both Wal-Mart and Mercury denied any knowledge of Harnett’s undercover adventures, called it bad business, and she’s no longer on Mercury’s payroll. Good night, everybody!
Not so fast. I find myself less interested in Harnett’s comeuppance than I am in how her former employer handles what she apparently gathered. Here’s why:
The Guardian reported that one worker at the first press conference talked to “Zoe” in a half-hour “interview” in which Harnett took notes on his background and concerns. Some reports specify that she used a recorder to tape the interview or interviews. So who has her notes and/or files?
The value of Harnett’s legwork is an area for debate, but these are ill-gotten gains. I’m not sure whether they’re still in the hands of Mercury, which did not respond to my call Friday. Do they have written notes? A digital voice file of an “interviewed” worker? Did they review any of it? Is it enough to say, as Wal-Mart has, that it intends to “help ensure this type of activity is not repeated”?
I did reach Dr. Marie Hardin, director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State. Here’s the meat of what she told me:
“I think the ethical thing to do is not to benefit from those notes, which would mean not to use those notes in a way that would put it at an advantage in its relationship with Wal-Mart and the union and with the person who was recorded. …
“I think the ethical thing to do is to share all of the materials she gathered with the people she deceived. …
“I think all too often we think about ethics on individual terms, but there are also ethical issues at the institutional level. Those in many ways are more important because they send a message, I think, to the individuals, to their own employees.”
Harnett did not respond to emailed questions and a call to a cell phone number left on an old resume. According to The Guardian, one of the workers Harnett interviewed recalled:
“She said she was a story teller from the heart.”
Since it made her Twitter profile, perhaps Hartnett believes that. Frankly, I hope she’ll be able to rebound, even if this was (some bloggers, naturally, have doubts) her own idea. We need to punish individual wrongdoing, but the example of Harnett is less important than the example set by her employer.
To me, failing to fully undo whatever a lie gained you or your client – however small its real or perceived value – is the more troubling matter to businesses that truly value ethical conduct.
A former U.S. Navy, Virginian-Pilot and Times Herald-Record journalist, John is a member of our Vox Optima Norfolk team. He is a prolific social media writer, so you can always find him on our staff page, Twitter, on Facebook, his personal blog, or by shooting him an email.
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