Questions raised by Edel-Mart’s blogging program

One thing was made painfully clear by the discussions sparked by Michael Barbaro’s article in the New York Times (Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in P.R. Campaign, March 7, 2006): that we’re nowhere near having a good understanding of how personal publishing — in this case, blogging — is impacting the practice of public relations, and that we have a long way to go in trying to figure out what is the best way of conduct in this gray area (that undergoes a rapid change), at the intersection of journalism, blogging and corporate PR.

Below you’ll find a list of loosely ordered questions that I asked myself while reading the tens of postings written on this issue – and quotations that are illustrating how I feel about it. (This is more of a “learning in public” type of posting, so if it doesn’t seem to make much sense to you, please just ignore it.)


Is this a non-story? Here’s the story: the “rules of engagement” between PR pros and journalists are translated to the relations between PR pros and bloggers. How do you feel about that (as a person/ blogger/ PR pro/ journalist)? What are the consequences of these practices?

John Wagner:

The “pie in the sky” days of blogging as a social cause — as a “new media” with transparency as its core — are over.

The episode does a good job of reminding us that many bloggers are just looking for a little love, and they’ll do whatever they can to find it. If it comes from a schmoozing PR pro with over-the-top praise and whispers of exclusives, so be it.

The challenge for us as communications leaders is this: We must not allow traditional methods of message control to permeate the new media, no matter how easy it might seem.

Are journalists hypocritical? They are rehashing PR-fed content all the time, without making any attribution. Why are they making such a big deal about it when the same thing happens to bloggers? Mm, because journalistsm and bloggers do uphold themselves to different standards, and because they have different ways of operating.

Journalism is defined, essentially, as a discipline of verification and requires its practitioners to:

  • have the truth as their first obligation
  • be loyal to citizens, first
  • “maintain independence from those they cover”
  • “serve as an independent monitor of power”
  • “provide a forum for public criticism and compromise”
  • “keep the news comprehensive and proportional”.

Moreover, “newspapers have a system of checks and balances in the form of journalism training, editorial standards and real human editors who can question and probe where information comes from” (John Wagner).

On the other hand, a small number of bloggers do have a personal code of ethics, but this is the exception, not the rule, and there’s no editor for a blog (a blog is the unedited voice of a person, right?).

It doesn’t mean that the rest of the bloggers are, somehow, unethical, or that blogs need editors. It only means that journalists and bloggers have different ways of relating to and processing information, that they have different responsibilities toward their readers, and that their readers’ expectations are different (they don’t expect to hear unedited opinions from journalists, or thoroughly researched and balanced articles from bloggers — although that happens).

What went wrong?

  • The intent
    • Is it OK to “feed” only bloggers sympathetic to your client’s cause with “ammunition”? Looks more like partizan politics than as “markets are conversations“.
    • Wal-Mart’s blog outreach is not about “starting a conversation” in the blogosphere. A conversations happens between two people, not via third parties (I’ll tell you something, than you can say it to another person as if it came from you.)
    • Colin McKay:

      I’m quite startled that this entire discussion, both here and elsewhere, overlooks that Edelman’s blogging work seems to reinforce the philosophical divide between pro and anti-Wal-mart groups.

      It’s not really about conversations or even sharing information: their work concentrates on providing ammo to pro-groups and denigrating anti-groups.

      Is there any room for conciliation or discussion in an environment like that?

  • The agent:
    • Isn’t it weird that Edelman’s Mr. Manson is doing online public affairs for Wal-Mart? Isn’t public affairs supposedly about political issues and government relations?
    • Is it OK “to hire bloggers with a known political bent and use those connections to gain entry to friendly blogs?” (John Wagner)
  • The script:
    • Was it clear to bloggers that they are contacted by a PR person? Not really. Kami Huyse:

      If you read the e-mails, Edelman was in essence offering a WalMart clipping service to the bloggers supporting the WalMart position replete with commentary, and that is where the trouble began.

      Most bloggers aren’t reporters and have never dealt with public relations efforts. They might not know or even consider attribution of sources (outside of attributing other bloggers) and they are always on deadline. To top this off, they don’t usually get paid much, even with adsense, making it tempting to cut and paste to get out information that supports their opinion.

      In other words, most bloggers are more likely to cut and paste releases or information verbatim than the mainstream media. Knowing this fact should help to inform how PR connects with bloggers in the futire.

    • Here’s how a cristal-clear introduction letter should look like.
  • The lack of a public recordLisa Williams (in comments):

    [W]hen you contact bloggers and provide them with information via email or phone, do you ensure that copies of that information are available to link to on the web, and that that material shows in a clear and direct manner who is responsible for the creation of the material?

    You might say, well, it’s the blogger’s responsibility to be transparent to their readers, and that is true. But how easy or difficult you make it to allow a blogger to be transparent and link to source material that clearly shows where the information is coming from is something that is under your control. While you may not be required, ethically or otherwise to do it, I do think that you can do it, and I would be so happy if you did. I think that would rock!

  • The lack of a direct dialogue. John Wagner:

    [W]ouldn’t it be more transparent — more blog-like — for Wal-Mart to simply make this information available to bloggers via its own blog, and let them come and get it if they are interested? Or perhaps utilize trackbacks or comments to alert them? Isn’t that the “conversation” we all talk about?

    Rex Hammock:

    Your customers really do want to hear from you: You don’t have to lie about who you are. You don’t have to pretend that you’re someone else saying nice things. If you’re afraid to have your actions and motives publicly disclosed and discussed, then you’re better off staying on the sidelines and letting other people have the conversation. Blogging is about joining in the conversation… not about trying to manipulate the conversation.

Is it OK to use bloggers to bypass the media?

The New York Observer:

“It used to be I would schmooze you and I was your flack,” said Mr. Edelman, whose firm netted about $260 million in 2005. “Today, if we want to get a message into the public’s conversation, we just make a post on a blog. If The Wall Street Journal goes after a client, we don’t have to accept that anymore. Let’s post the documents we gave The Journal; let’s show the interviews the newspaper decided not to show.

“You’re not God anymore,” he said.

Peter Himler:

Blogging and blog relations may pose a boon to the communications goals (and fortunes) of PR people and their clients, but a world without the balance provided by the fourth estate would spell disaster. Sure, wouldn’t it be great to deliver a client’s pure message to its constituents without the filter of a trained reporter from The AP or “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer?” Sounds like Karl Rove, doesn’t it? It is.

Transparency in news gathering and reporting is an ideal worthy to aspire to. Courting amateur citizen journalists to bypass mainstream journalistic scrutiny, which (still) serves the public interest, is entirely something else. Is it shrewd to cultivate like-minded citizen journalists to advocate on your client’s behalf? Sure. But I would hope that my clients could also endure the probing questions of a trained investigative reporter. And they would be sufficiently open-minded to post on their weblogs, for syndication, the contextual nuances and factual details that often get lost or edited from a mainstream news story.

Jeff Jarvis:

I think Edelman’s off on his contention that “PR plays much better in a world that lacks trust.” No, I think it only becomes another cause for distrust: We wonder who’s behind the spin.

And the solution to that, the cure for distrust, is transparency.

Where does the responsability for disclosure resides? There are no professional standards for this yet. (WOMMA’s Word of Mouth Marketing Code of Ethics doesn’t cover clearly this situation.) John Wagner:

The problem here is that many bloggers are NOT going to understand the rules of engagement that mainstream media and PR people live by every day. So it’s incumbent upon the PR firms contacting them to be overly protective of the need for transparency.

I applaud Edelman for being ahead of the curve as it relates to blogging and blogger relations. But this move appears to be a step backward. It’s not about facilitating the conversation … it’s simply the same ol’ sleight-of-hand model PR firms have used for years.


More links to come.