Stephanie Harnett Says She's a USC Student Journalist, but She Spies for Walmart?

Harnett / Mitchell in alleged action June 6.
Harnett / Mitchell in alleged action June 6.
Courtesy of Warehouse Workers United

Oops.

A woman working as a Walmart publicist under contract via the powerful Mercury Public Affairs firm represented herself as a journalist at a recent anti-Walmart press conference and actually interviewed a warehouse worker there, Elizabeth Brennan of Warehouse Workers United told the Weekly.

This was June 6. Yesterday she showed up at another anti-Walmart presser, this time in front of a Chinatown location being proposed by the chain. This time ...

... the woman labor organizers recognized as USC student journalist Zoe Mitchell identified herself as Walmart flack Stephanie Harnett -- with the business cards to prove it, Brennan said.

That got her all over the blogosphere today, and in fact, Harnett, who described herself as a "Senior Associate at Mercury Public Affairs," is now a senior associate in the unemployment line as a result of her undercover work.

Warehouse worker Santos Castaneda told the Weekly she did ID herself as a USC student named Zoe on June 6. She whipped out her tape recorder and interviewed him, he said:

I noticed she was a little nervous. She was very interested in the warehouse workers. When I said Walmart was responsible her attitude changed. She said, 'Why do you think Walmart is responsible for you?' I said well, 'We move Walmart's goods. It's Walmart's super-tractors [trucks]. I also see Walmart managers on site.' ... I say we work overtime and Walmart doesn't pay us overtime.

Castaneda said that he felt like she cut the interview short.

Stephanie Harnett Says She's a USC Student Journalist, but She Spies for Walmart?EXPAND
Warehouse Workers United

The 10-foot pole marks on Harnett must be deep because Walmart quickly distanced itself from Harnett. It sent us this statement:

These actions were unacceptable, misleading and wrong. Our culture of integrity is a constant at Walmart and by not properly identifying herself, this individual's behavior was contrary to our values and the way we do business. We insist that all our vendors conduct themselves in a way that is transparent and honest and we will reinforce that expectation to ensure this type of activity is not repeated.

[Added at 4:05 p.m.]:

Becky Warren, managing director for Mercury Public Affairs, also sent us this statement about Harnett:

The action taken by Ms. Harnett was in no way approved, authorized, or directed by Walmart or Mercury. Stephanie is a junior member of our team who made an immature decision. She showed very poor judgment and Mercury takes full responsibility. We are taking the necessary disciplinary actions. This is an isolated incident that has never happened before and will not happen again.

I can confirm that she is no longer with our company.

At one time in the recent past, it appears, Harnett actually was a student journalist at USC, having graduated from the journalism program there in 2009.

Her work experience also lists time as an editorial assistant at the Los Angeles Times and a position as production assistant at KTLA News.

The June 6 event outside a warehouse contracted by Walmart was organized by Warehouse Workers United to highlight a report by the National Employment Law Project. According to a summary from the workers:

Major retailers like Walmart are driving down wages and workplace safety standards on a scale far greater than understood before.... The explosion of "domestic outsourcing," the aggressive practice of contracting warehousing, transportation and goods delivery to a complex hierarchy of contractors and subcontractors, has lowered the quality of jobs in Southern California and disproportionately impacted working Latinos here.

Mercury Public Affairs is where onetime California assembly speaker Fabian Nunez is now a partner. A huge Democrat with ties to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's machine, he's no foe to labor. But Brennan figures this:

They've taken a contract with Walmart, and we think probably for a lot of money.

Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, a former PR Week reporter who broke the story today, concluded:

... Even within the PR industry it is considered horribly unethical and scandalous to pose as a reporter in order to spy for a client. It is not "fair play," even in the cutthroat world of Wal-Mart PR.

Opponents of Walmart's plans to install a smaller outlet in Chinatown are up in arms, by the way, mostly because the company uses non-union labor. They plan a huge rally June 30.

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]


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