Undercover employee incident highlights need for staff ethics training

Mercury Public Affairs is emphasizing that it does not condone or tolerate unethical behavior after it fired a junior staffer for going undercover at a group critical of client Wal-Mart.

The leadership of Mercury Public Affairs is emphasizing that it does not condone or tolerate unethical behavior just days after it fired a junior staffer for going undercover at a group critical of client Wal-Mart.

Last week, a 23-year-old associate at Mercury was caught posing as a student reporter at a closed press conference held by labor activists opposed to a store in Los Angeles' Chinatown district. Wal-Mart hired Mercury earlier this year to help it obtain a building permit there. Former Mercury associate Stephanie Harnett also reportedly interviewed a Wal-Mart warehouse worker, leading to accusations that the retail giant was spying on its opposition.

Mercury quickly issued a statement saying that “the action taken by Ms. Harnett was in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Wal-Mart or Mercury. Wal-Mart and Mercury are no longer working together, reportedly after a mutual decision to split.

“She showed very poor judgment and Mercury takes full responsibility,” the statement reads. “We are taking the necessary disciplinary actions. This is an isolated incident that has never happened before and will not happen again.”

Steve Restivo, senior director of community affairs at Wal-Mart, also issued a statement calling the actions “unacceptable, misleading, and wrong.”

Roger Salazar, MD of Mercury, confirms Harnett was fired and says that the firm did not add any conditions, such as a muzzle clause, to her termination terms. PRWeek reached out to Harnett for comment, who did not respond at press time.

“The issue is not about lying or misrepresentation because of the fact that you might get caught; it is wrong because it is ethically wrong,” says Salazar. “We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.”

He adds that the agency did not use any of the information Harnett collected from the union press conference. “It is a teaching moment for our staff and the PR world that ethics trumps ambition,” he says. In addition to meeting with dozens of staffers in its Los Angeles office, Salazar says the agency “plans to do even more training as a result of this incident, particularly with younger staff who are often eager and aggressive.”

The incident gives critics of Wal-Mart another chance to attack the retailer. Just two months before, The New York Times reported that the company stopped an internal investigation into claims that the company bribed officials in Mexico where the company wanted to build a store.

Other agency executives note that employer expectations can lead young agency talent to take unethical measures that can ultimately backfire on both the agency and client.

Todd Defren, principal at Shift Communications, says the industry has made inroads in terms of acting more ethically. However, he says lapses in judgment are still bound to happen, particularly at the junior ranks.

“Junior staff have certain goals to hit and they might not have enough training in terms of what is and isn't expected of them to meet those goals,” he says. “They might bend the goals without necessarily knowing they are, and end up doing some stupid stuff.”

Aside from a lack of training, Defren notes that there is inconsistency among agencies as to what constitutes an ethical line, and that sends mixed messages to young employees.

“On one hand, you would think best practices, especially in the area of ethics of any profession would be pretty well defined, yet the longer I've been in this career the more I've found best practices truly vary from firm to firm,” he says.

For example, Defren's agency has a policy against employees posting comments online under false pretences. Yet a different firm that works with a Shift client suggested the tactic. “What some people would do as a matter of course I would never touch,” says Defren.

Emmanuel Tchividjian, SVP and ethics officer at Ruder Finn, says Mercury did the right thing when it fired Harnett if it had no involvement in her actions.

He says the incident did not surprise him, adding that he has heard of agencies that have asked junior staff to pose as university students. Other agencies, he says, imply that posing as someone else might be acceptable without explicitly saying so.

“Sometimes the tone at the top is, ‘Go out, do whatever it takes,'” says Tchividjian. “The pressure can be too great, and the person not mature enough to understand the consequences of his or her actions. It is the responsibility of management to outline the goals and pass on the values of the company.”

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