October 22, 2006
Edelman/Wal-Mart Fiasco--The Changing Face of Public Relations

Considering our focus on grassroots marketing, empowering brand advocacy, and the like, it's probably a surprise you've not seen anything yet here about the Edelman/Wal-Mart scandal. David Edery alerted me to this a while back, and I've been following the way it has unfolded in the past week or so in the blogosphere.

To make a long story short (and there's a lot written about this one to sift through). A group of travelers decided to travel across America in an RV to Wal-Mart parking lots. They created their own Web site about the trip,Wal-Marting Across America, but also contacted the Working Families for Wal-Mart group organized by Edelman, Wal-Mart's PR firm, regarding their trip to make sure there wouldn't be any issues with their parking in the store's parking lots, talking to customers, and running this blog. Not only did Wal-Mart/Edelman not have a problem with it, but they even decided to sponsor the trip.

The problem was that the blog was not that open about the Wal-Mart/Edelman funding, so when people found out that this great piece of grassroots marketing was corporate funded, the blogosphere went nuts, calling out the creators of the blog, Wal-Mart, and Edelman.

The reaction in the blogosphere was strong.

Mathew Ingram writes:

"The disclosure was almost completely lacking--lacking to such an extent that one of the bloggers' employers wasn't even claer that there was a sponsorship involved. Did Wal-Mart dictate what could be said about the blog? In all likelihood they did. And Edelman probably acquiesced at some point, when they shouldn't have. If you're going to try and have a genuine conversation--something Jeremy Wagstaff isn't even sure is really possible when a PR company is involved--you're going to have to try a lot harder than that."

As Ingram refers to, Wagstaff asks, "What happens to a conversation when it turns out to be between people who aren't who they pretend to be?"

Further, Richard Edelman and employee Steve Rubel both responded, as did the folks who made the trip.

Scott Karp with Publishing 2.0 focuses not what he calls "the Wal-Mart flog incident" (meaning fake blog) in his coverage of the story but rather a response to how the Edelman folks reacted to the story, pointing out that the blogosphere wants full disclosure, honesty, and more than just a carefully measured short comment. In short, as we've written about before, the interactivity of he Web has led to a shrinking distance between producer and consumer, and this transforms the way public relations is handled.

Karp says that he can't blame Edelman for not responding in full because it's the nature of corporate communication with the public. What he does blame them for is their language in the past, criticizing others for responding sluggishly in similar situations when they ended up doing the same when they were in the hot seat.

"Despite the risks, I don't think that companies should be afraid of conversation--they really have no choice. As Edelman experience, the conversation will take place with or without them. But they need to realize that it's really, REALLY DIFFICULT to engage in conversation with the aim of achieving a desired outcome, especially when all isn't right with the world.

What corporations should eschew is the hype around blog marketing, especially from PR/marketing companies that tell you how easy and fun it will be. Setting a blog is easy. And blogging can be fun. But transparently stewarding a large corporate brand is never going to be a walk in the park."

Recently, Ivan Askwith wrote about the dangers of not considering what you write on a blog, in this case looking at a failed transmedia storytelling experiment with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The point is that, blogs really do reach people (at least I hope so), and you have to realize the implications of what you publish before it goes out there. In this case with Edelman, the case may have certainly not been to deceive on anyone's part, but there nevertheless should have been some strong awareness, especially with the anti-Wal-Mart sentiment out there, that they should be up-front and honest. The public is savvy to P.R. by this point, and firms may have to realize that more honesty and proper attribution is not only responsible but the only way to safeguard against this type of response.

And, while creative P.R. may be fun and very rewarding if done right, it can also be destructive and dangerous for a brand.