Edelman, Wal-Mart, and WOMMA’s Code of Ethics

Update, October 20, 2006:


Update, October 19, 2006: Andy Sernovitz, WOMMA’s CEO, responds in comments to my question (why didn’t WOMMA sanctioned in any way Edelman’s violation of the Ethics Code).


Update, October 18, 2006: WOMMA Statement on Edelman Blog Disclosure Issue.

In summary: Edelman violated WOMMA’s Code, they’re going to do a better job at educating their employees/sub-contractors, mistakes happen, you know.

No sanction for Edelman. Why?


(Final Update, Oct. 16, 2006) What is next, now that Richard Edelman has acknowledged that the lack of transparency for the Wal-Marting blog is 100% the agency’s “responsibility and error“?

Although the details of the brouhaha — who conceived and executed the plan, who did what when, how was this possible, etc. — would make the delight of the blogosphere, it’s unlikely that Edelman is going to make them public. And, maybe, they’re not so important after all.

What’s more important — as I said previously — is if Edelman, a big player in the social media space, will be hold accountable by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association for breaking WOMMA’s Ethics Code (I’m not the only one asking this question). Although enforcing a code of ethics is difficult, WOMMA has the chance to send a clear signal that it will not accept the violation of its Code’s main tenets: the honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity.

Richard Edelman’s reference to WOMMA’s Code in his mea culpa entry shows that he is aware of the agency’s fault. Does it show, also, that he’s willing to accept any sanction that might be decided by WOMMA? We’ll see.

There is a chance to have a positive outcome for this story. If WOMMA’s willingness to keep his members accountable will meet with Edelman’s willingness to accept publicly a sanction, then marketers will get a clear signal that their engagement in social media has to follow clear rules, and that breaking these rules will have consequences.

If not… — then we’re back to the world of Old PR: we have nice ethical codes, but there’s no way to enforce them.

Let’s hope for the best.


Update, Oct. 16, 2006: Richard Edelman responds (TechMeme thread):

I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.

Let me reiterate our support for the WOMMA guidelines on transparency, which we helped to write. Our commitment is to openness and engagement because trust is not negotiable and we are working to be sure that commitment is delivered in all our programs.

Also, see Steve Rubel’s response.


(Corrected & Updated Oct. 14) The story of Wal-Mart’s fake blog (Wal-Marting Across America) is all over the blogosphere (*), but — as Kevin Dugan says — the bigger story might be about Edelman, which is held responsible for its client’s blunder. So far Edelman has failed to respond in any way to the accusations that it’s behind the Wal-Marting… blog — which is quite perplexing.

According to SourceWatch, the Herald Group — not Edelman — is directing the PR campaigns for Working Families for Wal-Mart, the organization that sponsored the Wal-Marting… blog.

But if Edelman was, indeed, involved in this campaign, then the story could become a case study for how marketers’ engagement rules in social media are enforced. As a member of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association, Edelman should abide by the organization’s Code of Ethics, which is based on Honesty ROI:

  • Honesty of Relationship: You say who you’re speaking for
  • Honesty of Opinion: You say what you believe
  • Honesty of Identity: You never obscure your identity

Wal-Marting Across America campaign/blog was obviously breaking the Honesty of Identity guidelines:

  • Clear disclosure of identity is vital to establishing trust and credibility. We do not blur identification in a manner that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individual with whom they are communicating, or instruct or imply that others should do so.
  • Campaign organizers should monitor and enforce disclosure of identity. Manner of disclosure can be flexible, based on the context of the communication. Explicit disclosure is not required for an obviously fictional character, but would be required for an artificial identity or corporate representative that could be mistaken for an average consumer. […]

The same goes for Honesty of Relationship:

  • We practice openness about the relationship between consumers, advocates, and marketers. We encourage word of mouth advocates to disclose their relationship with marketers in their communications with other consumers. We don’t tell them specifically what to say, but we do instruct them to be open and honest about any relationship with a marketer and about any products or incentives that they may have received.
  • We stand against shill and undercover marketing, whereby people are paid to make recommendations without disclosing their relationship with the marketer. […]

(I don’t know for sure if the blog’s sponsorship by Working Families for Wal-Mart was made clear from the beginning. The MediaPost story says it wasn’t please see the correction below; some bloggers say it was. But even if the sponsorship was made clear from the start by a banner posted on the blog, the terms of sponsorship were never disclosed, and it wasn’t made clear that the organization is partially funded by Wal-Mart.)

We’ll see if Edelman is going to be investigated for breaking WOMMA’s Code of Ethics — but, anyway, this story can teach all of us a couple of lessons:

  1. When you’re trying to position your PR agency as a thought leader in social media, be prepared to live up to the expectations you’re setting.
  2. Agencies will be held responsible in the public sphere for their clients’ mistakes (duh!); it doesn’t matter if the client respected or not the agency’s advice.
  3. If an agency’s employees are blogging, people will expect them to explain — in real time — how client’s faux pas were possible on their watch.

Update/ correction (Oct. 14, 2006):

In a follow-up article published by MediaPost, Tom Siebert makes clear that the banner announcing the blog’s sponsorship by Working Families for Walmart was posted on the blog from the beginning, but details about the organization’s payment for the trip were never made public:

Although a WFWM banner ad trumpeted its sponsorship of the site, it did not mention that Wal-Mart paid for the couple’s RV, gas, food and other expenses.

Many thanks to Tom Siebert for writing to correct the record.

Another piece of information: the sponsorship banner was posted on the blog when the blog has been started, as shown by the first entry’s Google cache.


(*) Resources (updated, October 14-16, 2006)


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  1. Hi Constantin, according to Business Week Online, Working Families for Wal-Mart “Paid to fly the couple to Las Vegas, where a mint-green RV would be waiting for them, emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo.”

    Of course I did not see said mint-green RV for myself, so I can’t 100% verify that statement;)

  2. Constantin – thanks for the mention. It’s been interesting following the thread thru various blogs. Based a few articels, I too made assumptions that it was Edelman who pulled the strings of this campaign. I too may have jumped the gun on this one. Proves I’m a blogger and not a journalist.

    However, no matter who the agency was – is it not the client who has to assume the end responsibility? We do not know what direction that agency did give to Wal-Mart nor the how it was received by the client. What we do know is how the campaign was executed.

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  4. Hi again, as it happens, I am a former journalist, and according to the Walmarting Across America blog, Edleman is indeed the agency of record in this debacle. I quote Laura, from her last post:

    “So I called my brother, who works at Edelman and whose clients include Working Families for Wal-Mart, in order to find out if we’d be allowed to talk to people and take pictures in Wal-Mart parking lots.”

    So yeah – they’d be holding the can on this one.

  5. Maggie – thanks for doing that follow-up. I was concerned that I had jumped the gun in assuming that Edelman was behind the campaign.

  6. Pingback: The Writing On The Wal » Blog Archive » Was Edelman PR Behind the Jim and Laura Fiasco?

  7. Shalom Y’all,

    The reference to Laura’s brother could be misleading. I personally think that Edelman was behind this, but I also have to think that Laura’s brother could have just pointed her toward the appropriate agency. At some point Edelman and Wal Mart are going to have to come clean and tell us who did what.

    I know that I and my co-bloggers at The Writing On The Wal are not about to let this story slip into obscurity.


    Jeff Hess
    The Writing On The Wal
    Have Coffee Will Write

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  11. I think it is critical to have a code of ethics for blogging. The challenge is formulating an enforcement mechanism for those who fail to abide by the code that they supposedly support. The disapproval of the blogging community may not be sufficent to deter future violations. Increasingly companies and PR agencies are embracing blogging as a marketing tool and in the process are extending its reach into the mainstream. The keepers of the blogging flame may lose control despite the best intentions to stay true to the ideal. Quoting Samuel Morse when he typed his first telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?”

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  21. Constantin —

    You’ve asked why WOMMA doesn’t “sanction” Edelman. I’m not sure what you’re asking us to do … but punishment isn’t the goal — education and prevention is.

    This is a new environment, the rules are uncertain, and many mistakes will be made.

    We would much rather be the place for well-meaning companies to seek out to learn to do this right, than the place of punishment that forces bad practices underground.

    Our goal is to educate companies and give them the tools to train their teams not to make these mistakes.

    Please look at our official statement at:

  22. Steve,
    I really can’t believe that your previous comment on the Walmart blogs
    can be your final word on the matter. I have really enjoyed your blog
    over the last few years. I believe you have a view and an attitude to
    blogging that speaks the truth. Now perhaps you choose to keep quiet and
    hope the story will blow over.

    I note that both the forwalmart and paidcritics blogs now carry links
    from the contributors that disclose they are employees of Edelman.
    However, this is clearly done in such a way that is designed to leave
    the true relationship between the blog and visitors obscured, unless the
    visitor knows who Edelman is.
    Sure, it says the writer works for Edelman. It doesn’t say that Edelman
    is a PR company paid by Walmart to produce this stuff. It doesn’t link
    to Edelman. It just makes a bald statement. To most people that will be
    like saying the writer works for Foobar.

    Edelman created a little network of schill blogs,
    that tried to pretend they were genuine blogs, that had them written by
    staff – and now does the minimum disclosure while still avoiding the issue.

    I don’t believe your disclosure complies with the WOMMA code at all.

    Honesty of Identity

    * Clear disclosure of identity is vital to establishing trust and
    credibility. We do not blur identification in a manner that might
    confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the
    individual with whom they are communicating, or instruct or imply
    that others should do so.

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  24. On 10/20 I submitted the following questions on Richard Edelman’s post (What is Edelman Doing?). Neither of these questions were approved but I received two seperate emails from Richard Edelman this morning (I sincerely appreciate the time taken to respond).

    In his post Richard stated:
    “We are establishing a 24/7 hotline so our me2revolution team can review, provide counsel and apply best practice guidelines on social media programs before their implementation. This ensures that programs adhere to the WOMMA guidelines or best-in-class standards around the world.”

    Question (1): Can we be assured that Edelman is applying the aforementioned best practice guidelines to your programs that do not fall within ‘social media’?
    Response (1): “Good point. We are reengaging our recently retired vice chairman mike morley who will be looking at our major programs as ombudsman and will travel to speak on ethical practice to offices globally.”

    Question (2): Shouldn’t 100% disclosure include revising the Working Families for Wal-Mart ‘About’ page to reflect the most updated info. on the bloggers?
    “Working Families for Wal-Mart is a group of leaders from a variety of backgrounds and communities all across America. Working Families for Wal-Mart are customers, business leaders, activists, civic leaders, educators and many others with first-hand knowledge of Wal-Mart’s positive contributions to communities.”
    Response (2): “We will look at this. I did meet the woman who runs the group and she is a bright independent minded businesswoman.”

    Seems to me like the response to question 2 is reasonable enough but response 1 leave a lot to be desired.
    Any thoughts?


  25. Colin,
    Response 2 just begs the question: who is the ‘bright independent minded businesswoman’. The site says nothing on who the ‘real’ people are behind it. They should at least be named. Otherwise, who knows?

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  27. Looking at the photograph of Working Families For Wal-mart it’s clear that each one has an authentic and multi-ethnic smile. This is good right?

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