Still with Front Groups? Walmart still abuses PR

The Edelman-Walmart flog (fake blog) scandal should have been a warning.  Do not pretend to be someone else online even if your PR agency suggests it to you.  It is a quick way to offend stakeholders and galvanize opposition to an organization.  Your core stakeholders will probably just ignore it.  The new concern involves issues management in Chicago.  Walmart is still trying to expand its presence in Chicagoland.  People involved in the online debate over Walmart in Chicago notice series of unusual posts in support of expansion.  The screen name for the posts challenging arguments against expansion was “Chatham.” An online reporter for the Chicagoist decided to research Chatham.  The posts were traced to a URL address for ourcommunityourchoice.com.  The site is run by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce in support of Walmart expansion and notes Walmart is a member of the organization.  Here is a statement from the web site:

” The mission of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, of which Walmart is a member, is to make our region the most business-friendly in America and enhance our members’ success through programs in advocacy, member benefits, services and actionable information. The Chamber proudly supports the effort to bring businesses including a Walmart to the south side of Chicago, which would create hundreds of jobs, millions in tax revenues and provide access to fresh fruit and produce. As part of our support on this issue, we have delegated our own resources to create and manage a Web site called www.OurCommunityOurChoice.com to provide the latest information on the Walmart issue to the public and help connect the public to their Alderman.” http://www.ourcommunityourchoice.com/

The group is using social media as well with both a Twitter account and a Facebook page.  The key theme to the site is “Everyone else but Chatham and the South Side are making the decisions – It’s OUR CHOICE, NOT THEIRS.”  It should be noted the people running the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce are not from the area either (http://chicagoist.com/2010/01/26/wal-mart_using_fake_community_group.php).  Moreover, the online reporter discovered the IP address associated with the web site was from Serafin and Associates, a public a public relations agency.  The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce acknowledge the agency had been part of their strategy sessions but were not aware of posts being made on behalf of the campaign. 

A number of online stories argue that a front group had been uncovered:

“While Wal-Mart certainly has the right make its case to Chicago, the way they’ve gone about this – creating a fake community group that purports to represent a community’s residents and interests – is sneaky and underhanded. If what they have to offer Chicago is such a great deal, why did they need to go through the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce to set up a bogus grassroots group? When I started asking questions around their tactics, they refused to talk to me, except on their own terms. Wal-Mart claims that Chatham residents should be the ones speaking up and making the decisions about what happens in their neighborhood. Over the next few weeks, we plan to look even further into this issue, including talking to residents and community leaders in Chatham and their thoughts on the issue. But it looks like Wal-Mart is working behind the scenes to make sure that the official corporate line is the only one being heard.” http://chicagoist.com/2010/01/26/wal-mart_using_fake_community_group.php

The concern is that ourcommunityourchoice is a front for Wal-mart channeled through the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and facilitated by Serafin.  There is not a ‘genuine” citizens groups pushing for Walmart’s expansion.

Questions to Consider

  1. Would you consider this case a true front group?  Why of why not?
  2. What are the ethical concerns for the communication activities of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce?  Walmart?  Searfin?
  3. Why does it matter than no local people are behind the web site ourcommunityourchoice?
  4. Where do find the hidden bias in this case?
  5. How does this case further erode Walmart’s online credibility?
  6. How could this case be used to build even greater opposition to Walmart’s expansion?
  7. How does the case highlight the failings of transparency?
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