Still with Front Groups? Walmart still abuses PR

February 3, 2010

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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Front Groups in Real Time

July 27, 2009

Front groups is a topic mentioned in various chapters in the book including Chapter 2 (ethics) and Chapter 10 (issues management).  Here is a link to one web site examining a prominent front group operator in detail, http://bermanexposed.org/.   The “operator” is Richard Berman.   Berman’s two most prominent front groups are the Center for Consumer Freedom (a pro-food and beverage front group) and Mercuryfacts.org (another pro-food and beverage group) The web site is run by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) (http://www.citizensforethics.org/) .  The site describes Berman as follows:  “Richard Berman has been a regular front man for business and industry in campaigns against consumer safety and environmental groups. Through his public affairs firm, Berman and Company, Berman has fought unions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, PETA and other watchdog groups in their efforts to raise awareness about obesity, the minimum wage, the dangers of smoking, mad cow disease, drunk driving, and other causes. Berman runs at least 15 industry-funded front groups and projects, such as the Center for Union Facts and holds 16 “positions” in those organizations.”

Here is how CREW defines itself:

“Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in government and public life by targeting government officials — regardless of party affiliation — who sacrifice the common good to special interests. CREW advances its mission using a combination of research, litigation and media outreach. CREW employs the law as a tool to force officials to act ethically and lawfully and to bring unethical conduct to the public’s attention through:

  • Litigation
  • Freedom of Information Act Requests
  • Ethics Complaints
  • Internal Revenue Service Complaints
  • Federal Election Commission Complaints
  • Requests for investigations “  http://bermanexposed.org/about

 

The Center for Consumer Freedom (http://www.consumerfreedom.com/)  describes itself  as “The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choices. We believe that the consumer is King. And Queen.”  They sand in opposition to “A growing cabal of activists has meddled in Americans’ lives in recent years. They include self-anointed “food police,” health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal-rights misanthropes, and meddling bureaucrats.” (http://www.consumerfreedom.com/about.cfm )  A key issue for them now is debunking the obesity problem in the U.S.  This includes the defense of high fructose corn syrup.  The site is worth a visit for its very fun ads (the ads are meant to be funny” and their collection of cartoons about food and beverage issues.  The Center has an ongoing feud with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that will the subject of a later blog. 

 

Visit both CREW, Berman Exposed, and Center for Consumer Freedom web sites before answering the questions below.

 

Questions to Consider:

  1.  Does the Center for Consumer Freedom meet the requirements to be called a front group?
  2. How does the Berman Exposed web site help to contribute to transparency?
  3. How would you characterize CREW’s agenda—what do they want?
  4. The Center uses humor in its advertisements.  Do you think the messages are effective in getting their message across?  Why or why not.
  5. Does the Center’s use of humor help to mask key points about the issues, such as high fructose corn syrup, that should be discussed publically?  In other words, how does the Center’s message serve to frame the debate and what points in the issue is ignored?
  6. What is the justification for the Center and Berman’s other groups?
  7. What ethical issues does CREW face?
  8. What ethical issues does Berman face?
  9. What are the transparency (Chapter 3) issues in the case?

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