Why is telling the truth so hard?

Creative Commons, by Brian Hillegas

The Institute for PR has published “Ethical standards and guidelines for public relations research and measurement“, which PRNewser’s Tonya Garcia summarized as “Basically, don’t be a horrible, self-serving liar.” The statement, By Dr. Shannon Bowen, John Gilfeather, & Dr. Brad Rawlins, is a stake in the ground, and on the surface might seem to be a statement of the obvious. But PR as a profession still seems ethically dubious — witness the latest in a long line of Walmart amazin’s stories.

Walmart hired Mercury Public Affairs to lobby LA city hall to approve construction of a store in Chinatown. No problem. But when Mercury employee Stephanie Harnett went to a meeting of Warehouse Workers United, which wants to unionize Walmart’s workers, she lied about who she was, claiming to be journalism student from the University of Southern California.

Both Walmart and Mercury declaimed any responsibility — Mercury saying that she was a junior member of their staff and that no one, neither Mercury nor Walmart, told her to do any such thing.  I’d be tempted to write this off as a sad commentary on PR education and the “anything goes” culture of the modern age, but Socrates did a better job of making that argument.

What seems likely is that both Mercury and Walmart tossed her under the bus. Media reports say that Harnett was shaking like a leaf during her ruse, so she has to know that what she was doing was wrong. Of course, apparently she got over it in short order. Her Twitter account is closed (good idea; it can’t have been much fun to read the tweets), and she’s keeping a low profile.

Walmart’s not known as a Pantheon of ethics — the Astroturf campaign, the Mexico bribery issue. And many PR firms seem willing to do whatever will generate revenue, from selling war through deliberate falsehood to representing dictators.  PR ethics can seem like a contradiction in terms.

But I won’t give up, and neither should you. Thanks to Bowen, Gilfeather and Rawlins, we’ve got another arrow in our quiver.

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