June 25, 2012
On June 12, 2012 Gawker published the story of Stephanie Harnett, a public relation professional working for the PR firm of Mercury Public Affairs, in Los Angeles, had infiltrated a union meeting of Warehouse Workers United in L.A. on behalf of her client Wal-Mart. Mercury Public Affairs is (or was) trying to help Wal-Mart in obtaining a building permit for a new store in Chinatown. The Union opposed the project. According to news report, Stephanie Harnett pretended to be a student- journalist named “Zoe Mitchell” to obtained access to a restricted press conference organized by the Union.
Both her employer, Mercury and her client, Wal-Mart, claimed that she has acted on her own. She no longer works for Mercury. It is hard for me to believe that she acted alone and that neither her employer nor her client was aware of her action.
Even if we assume that it is true, then the question is: Would it be ethical to use the information that had been obtained illicitly? Roger Salazar, MD of Mercury says that the agency did not use the information collected.
I was asked by Chris Daniel of PR Week in an interview for an article he was writing on the story, whether it is ever “ok” for anyone to pose as someone he or she is not.
I believe the real question is whether it is ever ethically acceptable to be deceptive.
In principle and in most circumstances being deceptive is ethically unacceptable. In some circumstances such as saving a life or saving your own life, it is permissible. There is the Biblical story of Kind David who when captured by King Abimelech, pretends that he has gone made. Abimelech says to his servants: “do I not have enough mad men in my own kingdom? Let him go.” Nowhere in the story is King David blamed for his deception.
There are forms of deceptions some of them totally acceptable. For instance, one can argue that wearing make-up is, in a way a deception or a “masking of the truth.” The same can be said about retouching a photo. Other forms of deceptions are illegal, such as impersonating a police officer.
Determining what is unacceptable and what is permissible in terms of deception can be quite a challenge. I would think that the determining factor should be the intent or purpose of the deception.
Adin Steinsaltz writes in his book Simple Word that masks are “symbols of the parts we play in the drama of our lives. We may play one role at one time, and another role at another, but we wear masks almost all the time. We human are never completely naked.” He concludes by saying that “our unique nature, then, is in our capacity to choose our mask: the demon or the angel.
I would go for the angel.