You don't have to be a fan of Wal-Mart to be disgusted by the tactics its rivals sometimes use in attempting to block new Wal-Mart stores. Thomas E. Eppes, chair of the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), is due credit for objecting to the subterfuge tactics the Saint Consulting Group employs in attempting to thwart Wal-Mart at the bidding of shielded corporate and union clients.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported on how Saint Consulting surreptitiously encourages citizen groups fighting Wal-Mart on behalf of clients like Wal-Mart rival Giant Food Stores, a unit of Amsterdam-based supermarket company Ahold. The story was in much the same vein as an earlier one in Forbes that Saint touts on its Web site.
"Who hires Saint?" the Saint Web site asks. "Anyone who absolutely must win a tough land use battle," is the answer. There's only a generic listing of the types of clients that Saint serves because, the firm explains, "The Saint Consulting Group regards its clients' privacy as our non-negotiable responsibility."
Unions may be enlisted, too.
"Safeway," the story notes, "a national chain based in Pleasanton, Calif., retained Saint to thwart Wal-Mart Supercenters in more than 30 towns in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii in recent years, according to a Saint project list and interviews with former employees. Former Saint employees say much of the work consisted of training Safeway's unionized workers to fight land-use battles, including how to speak at public hearings."
"Former Saint workers," The Journal continues, "say the union sometimes pays a portion of Saint's fees. 'The work we've funded Saint to do to preserve our market share and our jobs is within our First Amendment rights,' says Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Safeway declined to comment."
P. Michael Saint, Saint's founder, says there's nothing illegal about his firm's tactics.
"Companies have legal protection under the First Amendment," The Wall Street Journal quotes him as explaining, "for using a government or legal process to thwart competition, even if they do so secretly.
"The protection," the paper adds, "is known as the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which grew out of several U.S. Supreme Court cases. Some legal experts say that, under the doctrine, a company has to reasonably expect it can win a lawsuit or a zoning battle – it cannot just use the process to interfere with a competitor's business."
Whatever the legal nuances may be, when a firm like Giant anonymously opposes Wal-Mart in a site selection battle under Saint's tutelage, residents who are also opposed don't know they're being joined by a Wal-Mart rival seeking to protect its own prices and profits. They should, of course.
As a public relations professional, Eppes' problem with such tactics is that, if uncovered, they may well be taken as hardball public relations ploys, even though Saint doesn't identify itself as a PR firm. Actually, Eppes explains, they're a perversion of responsible public relations.
"Many are in clear conflict with the PRSA Code of Ethics," he writes, "with no gray areas."
"Communities themselves get to choose whether Wal-Mart's site selections are good or bad for their citizens," Eppes says. "But those decisions should be based on ethical, honest and open communications in the public debate regardless of the point of view being expressed. Only truth and full disclosure can restore historically low trust in institutions. Those who damage that public trust must be called out."
Well said, on behalf of open and honest communication, the kind communities deserve.
Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.