Another Disclosure Disaster for Public Relations

*** UPDATE *** Jun. 25, 2012. The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Wal-Mart issued a statement on Jun. 22, 2012, saying the company and Mercury Public Affairs have decided mutually to end their “business relationship.”


Once again, a public relations firm is in the news for the unethical professional conduct of one of its own. And once again, it’s over the issue of disclosure.

Reports surfaced in Gawker and elsewhere yesterday that a young professional employed by Mercury Public Affairs had posed as a university student and registered under a false name to gain access to a “closed press conference” held by Warehouse Workers United (WWU). Mercury’s client, Walmart, is trying to open a store in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles, and local labor groups, among others, are challenging the store’s permitting. Allegedly, the Mercury employee infiltrated the meeting to interview union members, one would assume to gain inside information that would benefit her client.

This woman’s actions—and the subsequent reactions—have rippled through the profession, leaving her unemployed and the public relations profession with yet another black eye that erodes the public’s trust in our craft.

There’s no doubt that a clear ethical standard was breached when she failed to disclose her identity, employer and client in gaining access to the press conference. One of the six core tenets of the PRSA Code of Ethics is honesty. More specifically, our Code states that PRSA members must “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” (e.g., the client on whose behalf the firm is working) and “avoid deceptive practices.”

The PRSA Code also reminds PRSA members and other public relations professionals that we “serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent,” and espouses core values such as independence (we are accountable for our actions), loyalty (we are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest) and fairness (we deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public).

Now, it should be stated that neither the woman in question, nor any other Mercury employee in any of the agency’s six U.S. offices, is a member of PRSA. As such, she was under no obligation to uphold our core values, principles and practice guidelines.

Regardless, her actions were an #epicfail on just about any subjective measure of personal and professional conduct. But, were the actions hers alone? Mercury wants us to believe so.

The firm, which boasts on its website that “We know what it takes to win in difficult situations,” sent Gawker a statement attributed to Managing Director Becky Warren. The statement castigates a “junior member” of the Mercury team who “showed poor judgment” and “made an immature decision” that was in “no way approved, authorized or directed by Walmart or Mercury.” Adding insult to injury, Warren confirmed that woman “is no longer with the company.”

It’s both a predictable and plausible denial. But WWU’s Elizabeth Brennan told Gawker that the Mercury employee “talked to a warehouse worker for 20 minutes … about the bad conditions in which he worked” and was “shaking the whole time.” This doesn’t strike us as the sort of physical reaction that an aspiring Mata Hari might exhibit.

What’s more, the associate graduated from the University of Southern California just three years ago, in 2009. True, young professionals today are more savvy than ever before, but this still strikes us as a bit too junior to be hatching and carrying out deceitful plans for clients without some direction or encouragement.

Finally, between 2008 and 2011, the woman held positions at the Los Angeles Times and Huffington Post, and was a teaching fellow in Singapore. Not the typical CV of someone who would willingly violate both journalistic and public relations codes of conduct, and on her own accord.

Every story has two sides, and it’s usually somewhere in between that the truth lies. We’ve attempted without luck to contact the (now former) Mercury employee for her side; without it, we’re left to read between the lines of Mercury’s mea culpa cum denial.

And what are we to believe of Walmart’s own denial of culpability?

Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo told Gawker that the woman’s actions were “unacceptable, misleading and wrong,” and that a “culture of integrity is a constant at Walmart.”

But earlier this year, it was reported that Walmart de Mexico had orchestrated a campaign of bribery to achieve local market dominance, complete with a paper trail of suspect payments totaling more than $24 million. Instead of expanding the internal investigation that uncovered the bribery, given that there was “reasonable suspicion” to believe that Mexican and U.S. laws had been violated, Walmart’s leaders shut the investigation down.

Viewed in this light, Restivo’s “culture of integrity” comment rings pretty hollow. After all, as Arthur W. Page noted, reputation is 90 percent what you do and 10 percent what you say.

So the question remains whether the Mercury employee was a renegade “lone wolf,” or acting on the instruction of an agency superior or Walmart executive.

I can imagine the pressure a young professional might feel to follow her marching orders, regardless of how unethical those orders might be. Still, it’s ironic that she may have followed through out of a fear of being terminated, when that’s the fate that befell her anyway.

In the end, this is yet another example of why it pays to be honest and transparent. Business is built on trust, and virtuous reputations on honesty and integrity; neither can be built on lies and obfuscation.

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is PRSA’s 2012 Chair and CEO.

About the author

Gerard F. Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • If employers were to make adherence to the PRSA code of ethics a condition of employment and provide ethics training for their employees. It would change the face of public relations. I am not just refering to firms. Corporations such as Walmart could have the same conditions of employment for the firms they hire.  

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