Does being transparent ruin a PR blog?

by Mathew on October 20, 2006 · 33 comments

My blogging friend Tony Hung pointed me towards a new wrinkle in the ongoing saga of Edelman and Wal-Mart: a story in MediaPost describes how the PR company has essentially come out of the closet on its involvement with two other Wal-Mart blogs — the Working Families for Wal-Mart blog and the PaidCritics blog.

Rather than being anonymous, as they were before, posts on both blogs are now credited to individuals, whose names (first names only) are hyperlinked to bios that clearly say they work for Edelman. There is no mention of who Edelman is, however, or that the PR firm represents Wal-Mart, and there is no link to the Edelman website — and on the “About Us” page there is no mention that Edelman was involved in creating either site, or that both are financed by Wal-Mart.

astroturf

Of course, as more than one commenter has pointed out, pretty much anyone with a functioning brainstem would assume that anything called Working Families for Wal-Mart was obviously being paid for by Wal-Mart, and that any site trying to out and/or bash critics of Wal-Mart was also a paid shill. Which in raises the question that the MediaPost article gets into near the end, and that Tony also mentions:

If you’re being totally transparent, doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of having such a blog? Feel free to let fly in my comments. BL Ochman says Edelman should be thrown out of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, and Shel Holtz says he thinks even the disclosure of ties doesn’t make the blogs any better. Freelance copywriter Carson has some thoughts here.

Update:

Steve Rubel says Edelman is listening to all comments and wants to do better, and Richard Edelman outlines some of the ways the firm is trying to do that. And Suw Charman has an excellent post on the topic at her Corante blog — she says the Wal-Mart blogs show that “too many people at Edelman think the old school way, about control and being on-message and spin” (Richard Edelman has posted a comment there in which he disagrees with her). My friend Rob Hyndman also has some thoughts about the “atomization of media” that are worth a read.

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  • http://www.deepjiveinterests.com Tony

    I prefer “blogging buddy”, or should the situation warrant it, “bloggiferous comrade”. Of course I kid … but thanks all the same ;)

    What a bloody fiasco.
    Has any PR firm actually used blogs in an ethical way?

  • Mathew Ingram

    That’s a good question, Tony. I’m not sure. If any PR bloggers are reading, maybe they would be able to suggest some.

  • http://content-writer.blogspot.com carson

    I think that the “authenticity” factor is part of what makes blogging a powerful PR tool. The very act of PR, however, usually falls far short of “authentic.”

    I do think it’s possible to use a blog for PR purposes successfully, but I don’t think the Edelman Wal-Mart strategy is the way to go in the long run. Companies are going to have to find a way to be up front about who they are and why they are blogging if they want to avoid Edelman Excedrin headaches.

    That may require abandoning the notion of securing “grassroots” appeal, and will surely make successful PR blogging tougher…but I do think it’s possible.

  • Mathew Ingram

    That’s an excellent point, Carson. It is the authenticity of blogging that makes it so powerful. But in many ways, traditional PR is as inauthentic as it gets — so does that mean PR and blogs are like matter and anti-matter? As someone once said, sincerity is the key to success — once you can fake that, you’ve got it made :-)

  • http://www.irwebreport.com/daily Dominic Jones

    I’m going to state the obvious.

    Wal-Mart should fire Edelman because they are incompetent.

    What exactly has Wal-Mart received for their money?

  • http://www.deepjiveinterests.com Tony

    Well, they’ve gotten a whole lot of BAD publicity in the realm where there were trying to elicit GOOD.

    So, its like they’ve gotten negative value for their money. Which is surprising — how often do you *pay* PR firms to get BAD publicity?

  • Mathew Ingram

    But I thought there was no such thing as bad publicity :-) Or maybe that’s just for movie stars and politicians.

  • http://content-writer.blogspot.com carson

    I don’t necessarily think PR and authenticity are mutually exclusive by nature–only in common execution. Rohit Bhargava, I think, does a pretty good job of outlining how it might be possible to capture at least some of the authenticity advantage without making the Edelman error.

    PR practitioners may never be able to snag the full power of blogging as a WOM device, but they can capture enough of it to make it worthwhile.

    Re: Firing Edelman… Makes sense to me. Wal-Mart really needs to consider firing everyone who has ever been involved in their online pursuits. Their actual commerce pages are less than attractive, their faux MySpace tanked, and now this. Maybe some outfits should just stick to brick and mortar?

    CDB

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  • http://blog.basturea.com Constantin Basturea

    Tony, the response to your question, \”Has any PR firm actually used
    blogs in an ethical way?\” is — yes, sure. Here are two examples:

    – General Motors\’ Fastlane Blog [1] — its success is the result of the
    collaboration between GM and Hass MS&L [2]. The two companies have won
    the 2006 PR Week Awards for Best Use of the Internet [3] and PR
    Innovation of the Year [4] for this project.

    –the Chocolate Blog [5], launched to support the LG Chocolate Phone
    blogger relations program. The blog was/is written by three members of
    Hill & Knowlton’s UK social media team; their identity [6] and the fact
    they are writing for a client [7] were made clear from the start [8],
    and one of the H&K bloggers, Niall Cook, has discussed what they learned
    [9] from this program on his blog.

    [1] http://fastlane.gmblogs.com
    [2] their blog: http://www.blogworks.org
    [3] PR Week Awards/Best Use – http://tinyurl.com/y4t5px
    [4] PR Week Awards/Innovation: http://tinyurl.com/y3wwsw
    [5] http://chocolate.lgbloggers.com
    [6] identity disclosure: http://tinyurl.com/yx4b97
    [7] client disclosure: http://tinyurl.com/y8w42h
    [8] disclosure from the start: http://tinyurl.com/y4wr3t
    [9] lessons learned: http://tinyurl.com/y3alm7

  • http://www.deepjiveinterests.com Tony

    Wow — what a great reply. I should have remembered the fast lane blog; its mentioned in Naked Conversations. I love the references! :)

    Let me rephrase the question:

    Has any PR firm had success with using blogs when the client was swirling in controversy, and may actually have something to hide? (perhaps Scoble’s own blog is an example … hmmm …. )

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I think the issue is more that PR and blogs is about successfully faking sincerity – which contains within it the implication that there are times when they will unsuccessfully fake sincerity.

    I haven’t seen any evidence that this will discourage future attempts, huffing and puffing from blog evangelists to the contrary.

  • http://www.irwebreport.com/daily Dominic Jones

    PR and blogging are like oil and water. They don’t mix. But snake oil salespeople will tell you they do.

    WOMMA is like an Alcoholics Anonymous that says members can drink on special occasions.

    Wal-Mart was doing fine until it started listening to the snake oil salesmen. People didn’t always like them, but at least it was honest.

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  • http://www.blogopreneur.com Kian Ann

    Wow. Interesting one. Tranparency and PRs.. do they come together? ;P Well, I think PR and marketing need to be hyped or a little exaggerated… its SELLING for goodness sake! Its portraying the “best” of the company.

    Blogs should give PRs an opportunity to leak some more light into the real facts, but I feel that TOTAL transparency will ruin PR!

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  • http://gimps.de Marina making pictures

    Yes I agree with you on the whole. I think wallmart should have been honest instead of trying to produce propaganda which is hurting the image now.

    Thank you for sharing this story with me !

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  • http://jon8332.typepad.com/force_for_good/ Jon H

    The reputation of the PR profession is at an all-time low because so many journalists, bloggers and consumers view it as propaganda or spin. But companies are waking up to the realization that effective participation in the world of consumer-generated media (where their brands are defined) must be transparent, open and honest. The Wal-Mart Edelman fiasco demonstrates the incredible downside to manipulative PR. Companies embracing higher standards of communications ethics will be richly rewarded in the marketplace. More at http://jon8332.typepad.com/force_for_good/

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  • http://pro-stock.com.ua/ prosto

    cool! thanks a lot ! I like this post very much

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