Update, October 20, 2006:
- Edelman has disclosed that it’s behind two other front blogs for Wal-Mart.
- The Edelman/Walmarting brouhaha is covered by CNN/Money.com, Fortune and BusinessWeek.
- Richard Edelman is detailing the action taken by its agency, and he’s asking for suggestions (Steve Rubel is doing the same)
- WOMMA has opened a public forum for debating the issue.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- Dave Taylor: Edelman screws up with duplicitous Wal-Mart blog, but it’s okay?
- Todd Defren: Edelman’s Apology: “Acknowledgement” vs. “Acceptance”
- Dr. Karen Russel: The ivory tower meets the real PR world
- Shel Holtz: Edelman-WalMart Update: Richard speaks up
- For Immediate Release: The Hobson & Holtz Report – Podcast #181 (discussion starts at 45’28”)
- John Dowdell: Edelman, WalMart
- CNNMoney.com – The Browser: Wal-Mart PR firm pulls fake blog stunt, and runs for cover
- Jeremy Wagstaff: The Real Conversation
- Scott Karp: Edelman, Wal-Mart and the Loss of Control in Media
- Seth Finkelstein: “Wal-Marting Across America” – Did Googlewashing Work?
- Stuart Bruce: PR bloggers should give Edelman a break
- Nellie Lide: Wal-Mart, Edelman and Public Relations
- Duncan Riley: An open post to Steve Rubel
- Steve Ellis: Edelman/Wal-Mart aftermath: expect more PR blogging *** ups
- bizhak: Edelman, Wal-Mart, Steve Rubel: head, meet sand
- TechMeme threads: Shel Holtz – Edelman and the one-sided conversation, Scott Karp – Edelman, Wal-Mart and the Loss of Control in Media
- Business Week: Wal-Mart’s Jim and Laura: The Real Story
- Editor & Publisher: ‘Wash Post’ Photog’s Wal-Mart Trip Violates Paper’s Policy, ‘Wash Post’ Photog Pays Back $2,200 In Travel For Wal-Mart Trip
- Washington Post: Post Photographer Repays Group for Trip Expenses, by Howard Kurtz
- MediaPost: Pro-Wal-Mart Travel Blog Screeches To A Halt, by Tom Siebert
- MediaPost: WaPo Photog To Repay Wal-Mart Group For Blog Expenses
- Kevin Dugan: Will Edelman Walk the Talk?, The Sound of Silence
- Shel Holtz: Edelman and the one-sided conversation
- Todd Defren: Strike Three for Edelman, Three Questions re: the Edelman/Wal-Mart Flap
- John Wagner: Washing away in a tide of ‘how could they?’
- Toby Bloomberg: Defending and Defining The Blog Culture
- Susan Getgood: Wal-Mart and another lesson from Science Fiction
- The Hobson & Holtz Report – Podcast #180 (the segment on Wal-Mart starts at 16.35”)
- Steven Silvers: An open letter to PRSA about an open issue
- Jeff Risley: Another thought on Wal-Mart & Edelman
- Paul Gillin: Wal-Mart still not getting it in social media
- David Burn, AdPulp: Caught In The PR Crossfire
- Alex Neihaus: Can’t buy me love…
- Robert Scoble: Blog integrity is important