PR, Truth and Consequences
What happens when a PR firm has to do crisis control – on itself?
That’s the question that popped into my mind after reading this Los Angeles Times story. It appears that PR agency Mercury Public Affairs was forced to take a hard look in the mirror after a, shall we say, gaffe when the organization tried to deflect a bit of potential negative press for its client, Wal-Mart.
Apparently, a (now former) Mercury staff member, tapped by Wal-Mart to lobby L.A. officials regarding a proposed Wal-Mart in that city’s Chinatown area, made a gigantic misstep by posing as a USC journalism student at an anti-Wal-Mart event. While there, she proceeded to pepper the organizers with questions designed to invoke a pro-Wal-Mart stance in the hopes of influencing public opinion in the store’s favor.
But, as in most things, the truth won out. The “student” was summarily exposed as a fraud and Mercury was forced to turn its damage control prowess on itself.
How did they react? Their first act was to fire the executive, effectively distancing themselves from the offending party. The second was to issue a statement that served to increase that distance by placing the blame on the former staffer, citing her junior-level position and “actions that run contrary to our firm’s culture and values.”
Meanwhile, this hasn’t exactly helped Wal-Mart’s image, either. For many the company no doubt appears guilty by association, even if they were unaware of what Mercury was doing. Which is probably why they fired the PR firm, as well.
I’m not going to pass judgment on either Mercury or Wal-Mart here. Mistakes were made and hopefully everyone involved has learned from them. But I will say that we work in an industry where integrity is absolutely imperative in regards to everything we do and everyone we interact with. Our job is to communicate – clearly, effectively and honestly, and with a number of parties, including customers, reporters, clients and more. I would even go so far as to say that being honest and open is the most important part of what we do, because everything else is built upon that.
At the end of the day, getting positive and informative coverage is our goal. But that cannot be done by any means necessary. We, as an industry, need to remember that those efforts are based on communication, and the fundamental basis of any communication is the truth.