Working as a flack for a public relations company representing Wal-Mart, Stephanie Harnett committed one of the big no-nos of journalism by falsely identifying herself as a reporter. Using a phony name, she claimed to be a student journalist from the University of Southern California in order to infiltrate a union press conference earlier this month. This week Harnett left the PR company, Mercury Public Affairs.
According to her LinkedIn profile, Harnett once was actually a student journalist at USC, graduating from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in 2009 with a degree in print journalism. Her profile states she also worked for the Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post.
Both Wal-Mart and Mercury Public Affairs have denounced Harnett’s actions. However, this isn’t the first time the retail giant has been tied to shady public relations tactics. Other PR representatives claimed to have been asked to assume false identities to gain access to anti-Wal-Mart meetings, and in 2006 Wal-Mart was involved in a PR-related scandal in which the company reportedly paid its own bloggers to pose as ordinary consumers and to promote the retailer through a fake blog.
A recent revelation, published Friday on Gawker, suggests that perhaps Harnett did not act entirely without the approval of her employer and client. A PR representative who worked for a firm that represented Wal-Mart in Ohio in 2005 told Gawker that he was also asked to attend anti-Wal-Mart community meetings under a false identity. The tipster wrote that she was asked to pose as a graduate student studying the effect of big-box stores on rural identity, then report to the company with a summary of the events at public meetings. She added that other employees did similar work. While all of their instructions came from the PR firm, not from Wal-Mart, she wrote that she believes these tactics are a common practice of the corporation.
“It’s my understanding that the company does this kind of sketchy legwork in every single town with any kind of anti-Wal-Mart sentiment, gathering, etc., and there must be dozens of flacks who have done variations of this,” the tipster wrote to Gawker in a statement published on the blog. “I seriously doubt some flack thought to infiltrate Wal-Mart and pose as a journalist on her own when I received such a close variation on these instructions from my own then-bosses seven or eight years ago.”