All Fair in Love or War?: Unsaintly Acts Thwarting Wal-Mart

Ah, Wal-Mart, the store many love to hate.  But is all fair in the war against its multi-pronged invasion? 

Ann Zimmerman writes in The Wall Street Journal:

MUNDELEIN, Ill.—Robert Brownson long believed that his proposed development here, with its 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, was being held hostage by nearby homeowners.

He had seen them protesting at city hall, and they had filed a lawsuit to stop the project.

What he didn’t know was that the locals were getting a lot of help.  A grocery chain with nine stores in the area had hired Saint Consulting Group to secretly run the antidevelopment campaign.  Saint is a specialist at fighting proposed Wal-Marts, and it uses tactics it describes as “black arts.”

Zimmerman quotes the head of Saint Consulting:

“… our goal is always to kill Wal-Mart.”

Wait before you start cheering.  Saint’s methodology seems that of a sinner gone astray.  Zimmerman writes:

For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a Saint manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees.  They flood local politicians with calls, using multiple phones to make it appear that the calls are coming from different people, the former employees say.  They hire lawyers and traffic experts to help derail the project or stall it as long as possible….

Saint, founded and led by Michael Saint, is not fighting Wal-Mart because he aspires to be canonized by liberal community activists.  Saint is equally willing to manipulate grassroots efforts to represent big developers seeking to interject large projects in the midst of tranquil neighborhoods.  Emily Lambert writes in Forbes Magazine:

Small groups are getting smarter about keeping big projects at bay.  Thanks to Saint Consulting, corporations are wising up, too.

In an interview in AreaDevelopment Online, Saint, a co-author of NIMBY Wars, talks about using “land-use politics” to aid developers:

There is too much money at risk to not do everything in your power to get City Hall to say, “Yes.”  Managing a land-use political campaign is no job for amateurs; developers are often their own worst enemy because they are constitutionally unable to act in a disinterested and diplomatic manner when the project under attack is their “baby….”

You need to create a political campaign that convinces, identifies, and delivers supporters into the process.  We advise clients to get out there before opponents have formed into organized groups and talk to people who live closest to the project because they are most likely to form the nucleus of the group to stop it.  You need to find people who think the project is a good idea and get them to come and participate in the political process by calling City Hall, showing up at public hearings, putting up signs and posters, and appearing in videos.

Zimmerman reports Saint said:

If it’s legal to perform a service, we’ll do it.

But what of ethics?  Thomas Eppes, the current chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, writes: 

Saint’s activities seem not to be illegal, but they clearly fall outside the bounds of the ethical practices to which public relations professionals subscribe, including the following PRSA Code of Ethics values…. and principles….

There is no record to suggest a Saint employee is or has been a PRSA member, and so it could be argued that our Society lacks jurisdiction to comment.  Moreover, P. Michael Saint, chairman and CEO of the organization, makes no claim to its being a public relations firm —that’s the good news part of this story.  Nonetheless, the company’s engagement of communications techniques makes the distinction irrelevant to observers who could reasonably view his firm’s practices as those of public relations practitioners.

For that reason, it is essential that we clearly and firmly declare our separation from this “dark side” of communications.  As ethical public relations practitioners, we encourage every reputable business and practitioner to join PRSA in categorically condemning and disavowing these strategies and those who practice them.

But what is the outcome of Saint’s battles agains Wal-Mart?  In Pennsylvania, Zimmerman reports

Saint documents from 2007 say it had lost one battle in Pennsylvania, defeated 13 projects and delayed the remaining ones from four months to four years.

One has trouble feeling empathy for a giant like Wal-Mart.  Wonder how much Wal-Mart expends on its public relations campaigns to forward its mammoth expansion plans.   And in nearby Helotes, a developer denied his Wal-Mart sued City Council and the Helotes Heritage Association.  Richard Alles, personally, and the Citizens Tree Coalition had a $24-million lawsuit slapped on them for their opposition to Wal-Mart plans on Vance Jackson.

If you are an individual engaged in David-versus-Goliath-type warfare, it would be difficult not to celebrate someone a bit closer to Goliath’s size entering the ring to defend you. 

Unfortunately, I cannot think of anyone like that ready to sink money into campaigning against illegal signage on Alamo Plaza

Sometimes it is so hard to keep that halo on straight.

Wal-Mart-Related Note Added on June 13:  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been supporting efforts for citizens in Orange County, Virginia, who are opposing a Wal-Mart-centric development, to gain standing in court.  Good news was received at the end of April:

The Wilderness Battlefield battles Wal-Mart development. (Photo: National Park Service)

Today, the Orange County Circuit Court in Virginia ruled that a Wilderness Battlefield lawsuit will go to trial that was filed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield and local residents.  The lawsuit challenges zoning approval for a proposed 240,000-square-foot Wal-Mart superstore and other developments on the Wilderness Battlefield and adjacent to Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park…. 

National Trust president Richard Moe hailed the decision. “While the National Trust will not serve as a plaintiff in this lawsuit, we are very pleased that local Orange County residents and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield will be able to challenge this Wal-Mart project that threatens an historic place they care about. Nothing is more central to our mission than defending the rights of citizens to have such a day in court,” said Moe. “170,000 men fought and 29,000 perished in the Battle of the Wilderness and no Wal-Mart, or other development of such intensity, should ever be placed on this hallowed ground.”

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