Retailers like extra attention around the holidays, but Meijer probably could have done without the front page attention in the Grand Rapids Press on Christmas Day.
The Press follows an extensively reported piece in the Traverse City Record Eagle about Meijer's "secret plan" to recall Acme Township officials who were opposed to a Meijer store there.
The allegations are that Meijer--with the help of local PR firm Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson--had strategic plans to remove the local leaders who stood in their way. The Record Eagle reports that SST "crafted recall language, devised election strategy, wrote campaign literature, and used local residents as figureheads in the recall." All of that is fine PR work, if it's done above board. If these local residents known as the Acme Recall Committee were a 'front group'--i.e., put forward as if they came together by themselves and were not organized and supported by SST and Meijer--then that would be a clear violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics. Apparently, SST staffers ghost wrote letters to the editor and other materials that local residents presented as their own. To be sure, politicians employ speechwriters and there are other examples of individuals seeking help to express themselves. But these activities as part of an election campaign smell of an unethical front group strategy.
The larger trouble seems to be that Meijer never reported its financial contributions toward the recall effort. This is in violation not just of voluntary professional ethics codes, but of enforceable state law. On this one, Meijer's face is as red as its logo.
Most troubling to me is that SST and Meijer officials say very little. They refuse comment or are unavailable. This usually implies guilt in the court of public opinion. If what they did is not unethical, they should say so and say why. Meijer President Mark Murray does comment in yesterday's Grand Rapids Press, but only to say they will cooperate with the state investigation (as if they have a choice) and that he didn't know about this until recently (even though he was hired presumably for his talents at managing large organizations). Meanwhile, there is nothing about this issue on the news section of Meijer's web site. One would think if there is an explanation or defense of Meijer's actions, they would offer one. The fact that they don't speaks volumes.
Meanwhile, local leaders in Acme Township--all of whom retained their seats--offer a troubling and heartfelt commentary. As one said: "The democratic process in a little township has been undermined by a corporation's millions."
Indeed, for PR to be called a profession, it must show it serves our democratic society in a positive way. Engaging in secretive plans in this case seems more self-serving, and by that measure not professional. There is a difference between advocating a point of view openly versus secretive manipulation. The trouble is, the PR profession takes another hit to its reputation in this case. We should all be upset about this--especially those of us who take seriously the PRSA Code of Ethics sixth provision, to "enhance the profession" and strengthen the public's trust in public relations. That did not happen in Traverse City recently.