A whiff of window-dressing in Wal-Mart’s blogger relations campaign

When I first read Tuesday’s New York Times story about Wal-Mart, bloggers and Edelman PR, my mixed reaction included one of incredulity.

This story is about US retailer Wal-Mart and how they are reaching out to bloggers as part of a corporate reputation repair campaign and “feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters,” to quote from the NYT story. That outreach has already produced some good results, a Wal-Mart spokesman says in the NYT story.

All grist to the PR mill and I don’t see any issue with outreach like this. On the contrary – it’s a very good example of how any company can embrace the blogosphere with the new activity of blogger relations (like media relations but with bloggers rather than journalists) to build relationships with people who may have influence in the connections they have with others who read what they post on their blogs. It’s illustrative of good business thinking by both Wal-Mart and Edelman, their PR firm.

Shel Holtz has a very good commentary on the overall story as he sees it, from his CNBC Squawkbox interview on US television yesterday.

Where I do have an issue is if the affiliation of the outreacher is not wholly and openly disclosed at the outset and in a way that leaves no doubt at all as to that outreacher’s relationship with the company. According to the NYT story, that was not the case. That story includes a link to a set of emails between Marshall Manson, a senior account supervisor at Edelman, and Bob Beller Rob Port, author of Crazy Politico’s Rantings Say Anything.

Manson’s first email started like this:

Hello. I hope you’re well. I just wanted to drop you a line and introduce myself. I’m a blogger myself (I contribute to Confirm Them and Human Events’ blogs among others), but for my day job – I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart, working with Mike Krempasky who runs Redstate.com.

Just wanted you to know that your post taking notice of “Why Wal-Mart Works” was noticed here and at the corporate headquarters in Bentonville. As you probably know, Washington-based union bosses have been running a campaign against Wal-Mart. And it’s always a challenge when opponents organize to attack corporations. The companies always seem to have one arm tied behind their backs when they try to respond, so it’s nice to see folks like you defending them when it’s the right thing to do.

If you’re interested, I’d like to drop you the occasional update with some newsworthy info about the company and an occasional nugget that that you won’t hear about in the MSM. Let me know.

No mention that Manson works for Edelman (nor that Krempasky does as well). In the subsequent emails, no mention either. Yes, Manson’s email signature says ‘Edelman’ and includes a phone number and his Edelman-domain email address. But is that sufficiently clear?

I don’t think so. If I’d been Manson, the first paragraph in my introductory email to Beller Port might have said this:

Hello. I hope you’re well. I just wanted to drop you a line and introduce myself. I’m a blogger myself (I contribute to Confirm Them and Human Events’ blogs among others). For my day job, I’m a senior account supervisor at Edelman PR where I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart, working with Mike Krempasky, the head of Edelman’s online public affairs department, who also runs Redstate.com.

That would be crystal-clear disclosure. There would be no doubt at all as to my affiliation and, therefore, my bias. It’s up front and Beller Port would have had no doubt that he was in a conversation with someone acting formally on Wal-Mart’s behalf in a PR capacity.

Instead, you have a reasonable doubt. For all you know, the email is just from someone like you who says “I’m a blogger myself,” implying a cameraderie with a fellow blogger. Even reading the phrase “I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart” and seeing the word ‘Edelman’ in the email signature, you may not make any connection with the professional capacity of your correspondent especially if you’re not in the PR community yourself.

To me, this lack of crystal clarity just isn’t good enough and has a whiff of window-dressing, even subterfuge, about it. It’s especially disappointing from a PR firm which is arguably the leading PR agency advocate for the benefits of social media and transparency in public relations.

So it gives a bit of a hollow ring to this text in Richard Edelman’s word to the wise:

[…] PR firms must be very conscious to abide by some very clear ethical standards, so that we do not compromise bloggers. First, we must always be transparent about the identity of our client and the goal of the PR program. Second, we should ask permission to participate in the conversation, and be comfortable with any communication being made public, whether by the blogger or an investigative journalist. We should support bloggers’ transperancy re. the source of their information. Third, we must reveal any financial relationship with bloggers, whether consulting or even reimbursement of trip expenses. Fourth, we must ensure that the information we provide is 100% factually correct and not “spin.”

Is my reaction to this NYT piece a bit strong? Some may argue it is. I will argue that total clarity and transparency in disclosure – where there is no reasonable doubt at all – are paramount to trust and authenticity, especially where PR play a central role in building relationships with bloggers to further a business goal.

I don’t see that clarity and transparency in the Wal-Mart case as described by the New York Times.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Stuart Bruce

    Fractionally strong (is that an oxymoron?). You’re right that the way you phrase it is possibly better, but the flip side is that the way it was done is still full disclosure.

    The email clearly says that his job is “online public affairs for Wal-mart”. You say Marshall Manson should have been “up front and Beller would have had no doubt that he was in a conversation with someone acting formally on Wal-Mart’s behalf in a PR capacity.”

    He was. His email makes it crystal clear that he was acting in a PR/public affairs capacity. The only difference in yours is that you highlight the fact he works for a consultancy.

    The jury is still out on that particular ethical question. My personal view is that I always say I am a consultant (although often in exactly the same way as Manson by relying on email sig and address). However, this is not accepted wisdom and many professional and ethical PRs actually advise you to do such things as “use a client’s email address”. In fact I think Chris Rushton, Head of Journalism at the University of Sunderland actually said that during his presentation at the conference in Manchester.

  2. neville

    I don’t agree, Stuart – it was not full and open disclosure. My suggested starting paragraph would have been.

    I’m actually quite surprised to see the commentaries by some of our PR blogger colleagues who, like you, see little or no issue at all about disclosure where Manson’s email signature is viewed as perfectly adequate.

    My view is – ensure there is absolutely no doubt at all as to your affiliation and motives by stating clearly and unequivocally in the email itself exactly who you are and who you work for. Just saying “online public affairs for Wal-Mart” is woefully inadequate.

  3. Niall Cook

    I guess it all depends on what you think adequate disclosure looks like, but there are definitely a different set of rules required. My worry is that ‘traditional’ PR people trying to engage with bloggers like they are journalists will miss this subtle, but important, distinction.

    I do wonder about the motivation behind the NYT’s publication of this article though. Smacks to me of yet another ‘we must discredit bloggers to save our jobs and ad revenues’ piece.

    One point of note, Neville. I don’t think the email transcript that you link to was the one with Bob Beller, but came from Rob Port who writes the Say Anything blog.

  4. neville

    I’m not sure what a different set of rules could be, Niall (care to expand a bit?), but to my mind disclosure in this case has just one rule – say openly who you are and who you work for in a way that leaves no doubt. Why wouldn’t anyone want to do that?

    As for the NYT’s motivation, it’s easy to assume the article is yet another example of MSM bias against bloggers. While the overall flavour of the story is a bit sensationalist, I don’t assume it does mean that.

    Thanks for pointing out the correct blogger re the email transcripts. I misread that part of the NYT article.

  5. Niall Cook

    By different set of rules, I simply mean do not treat bloggers as you would journalists. For instance: don’t assume any knowledge on their part of how the client/agency relationship works; don’t assume that they understand the kind of common language that you have with a journalist; etc.

    I’m not sure I agree with you that including a signature that says where you work isn’t good enough, though. If you clearly point out in your text that you are contacting them on behalf of a “client” or a “company I have been hired by”, surely a signature containing the name of your employer is disclosure enough?

  6. neville

    I don’t think it is enough disclosure, Niall, especially in this case where the wording of the email is ambiguous. The first paragraph, for instance, could give the impression that the writer works for Wal-Mart itself.

    And the email signature shown in the transcriopts is equally ambiguous if you’re not in the PR community or know who Edelman is.

    The point, though, to me is why wouldn’t the writer want to give full and unequivocal disclosure in order to be wholly clear and transparent as to his relationship with Wal-Mart? That’s certainly what I would have done, ie, be unequivocal.

    Re the different set of rules, I agree with you on not (necessarily) treating bloggers as you would journalists. In which case, I see that as even more validity for my point on being clear and unequivocal.

  7. Niall Cook

    I agree. One can’t help wondering about the political nature of this campaign and whether this was really the right way to achieve their objectives. A product launch is a pretty uncontroversial thing, but trying to sway public opinion over something that people are so passionate about…

  8. Philip Young

    Apart from strongly agreeing with Stuart about the awful ‘I hope you are well…” intro which would have had me clicking delete before even getting to grips with the issue, I, too, take a fairly relaxed view about the attribution.

    For me the key point is Wal-Mart addressing bloggers directly, and especially in the ‘We’re all mates ogether, slap on the back’ style of this email. As Niall points out, journalists quickly learn to question sources; most good reporters instantly ask themselves ‘Why is this person telling me this?’ As a rule, I don’t think bloggers do, at least not yet.

    It is one thing for an organisation to sidestep the gatekeepers through a blog that might be read by the public, and something rather different to avoid the unwelcome screening and reframing of a journalist by encouraging a relationship with a less experienced conduit.

    I think this is the dilemma that we have to addess – and I don’t think it is one to which there are easy answers.

  9. Kami Huyse

    I think it is easy to react to the NYT piece by being protective of Edelman, after all, they didn’t do anything unethical and, many of us being bloggers ourselves, we have a reflex to protect our right to conduct PR in the blogosphere.

    I agree that one if the big problems is that we are trying to treat bloggers the same as we would a journalist. Most bloggers have a specific agenda or opinion, and if they get information that reinforces that opinion, they will most likely use it. The question is, how will they use it. We can’t control journalists either, but we have a good idea of how they operate and vice versa. Not so with bloggers.

    By not considering this possibility, the PR agency became the story, drowning out the message (at least temporarily) it was trying to get out for its client. It also gave fuel to what Kremasky says is a $25 million online opposition. I even found a new negative blog started by an employee of WalMart in reaction to the NYT story. This isn’t good and counteracts many of the (I’m sure) positive results of this campaign.

    We need to deconstruct this effort and come up with something that works better. The survial of Social Media PR depends on it. That is why I am really interested in your re-write of the pitch, it helps us all, if we can get past our defensiveness about this issue.

  10. John Wagner


    I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in feeling that the PR representative was skirting the bounds of transparency with his e-mail.

    I posted about this yesterday — note too that his e-mail actually comes from Blue Worldwide and not an Edelman address — and commented as such on Richard Edelman’s blog. And it’s more than just his attributon — there are several other instances of less than upfront language throughout.

    Richard responded that he felt his employee obeyed the rules of transparency the organization had set down. Whether he really believes that or is just saying so publicly, we don’t know.

    The bottom line is that the responsibility for transparency in these outreach programs MUST reside with the professional agency, not the amateur blogger.

  11. neville

    Philip, I don’t mind that ‘hope you are well’ intro. Nor the overall style of the email wording. But if I’d been writing the email rather than Manson, I wouldn’t have written his exact text at all.

    Wal-Mart addressing bloggers directly is a key point, I agree. A separate but related point, in my view.

    ‘The PR agency became the story’ – a very good point, Kami.

  12. Bob Beller

    I didn’t feel there was any lack of disclosure on Edelman’s part, and I received the same sort (almost to the word) e-mails Rob Port received. (I must have, you almost attributed them to me) It was obviously from a PR worker for the company.

    Maybe someone fairly naive wouldn’t have figured out who he worked for, but right after I got the e-mail I checked my site meter, then googled the company name.

    Have a great day,

    Bob Beller
    The Crazy politico

  13. neville

    Bob, thanks for your comment.

    You did what I would have done and what I’m sure many, if not most, others bloggers would have done – checked out who the company was.

    Is this all a moot point, then, re how transparent or not Manson’s disclosure in his email was? I don’t think so. Whether anyone Googles the name or not, the fact remains that the initial email as per the transcripts from the NYT story was ambiguous.

    As I’ve said, if it had been me writing that email, I would have disclosed more to ensure there was no possible doubt as to my affiliation.

    But that’s just me!

  14. Michael Vanderdonk

    I personally think the disclosure was enough – and I suspect Edelman (Manson) thought so as well. Sure, it could be made clearer who employs whom. Though your version just makes me think Manson gets a better paycheque… If that same email were sent to journalists, would the disclosure be enough for you Neville?

    Bloggers are a new force in PR/Media/Communication. They don’t follow the established rules of RP/journalism. Most blog for fun, are unpaid, self taught, and have no boss to answer to. The chances of most bloggers researching the sender, let alone the information is probably too much to ask – just look at how fast rumour and mis-information is spread through the blogosphere. Even in this case (copy and paste of content without attribution) tells us some bloggers don’t even read or take notice of what’s in front of them.

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  17. Eric Eggertson

    Neville et al: I have to agree that the disclosure and transparency issues are what left Edelman open for criticism.

    Sucking up to a blogger by gushing about their previous posts seems to be fairly standard practice, so I don’t really have much problem with the rest of the e-mail contents (except the idea of a blogger junket to Wal-Mart HQ — I think I’d rather have spikes driven into my feet than endure that).

  18. neville

    Michael, it’s not who the email goes to that’s an issue. It’s the full disclosure which should be the case whoever the email goes to.

    I agree with you re bloggers being a new force in PR. So the new activity of blogger relations is still being thought out in terms of how to do it and best practice. Yet to my mind, making a full and clear disclosure of who you are and who you represent is PR 101 and hardly something new for a PR agency.

    As for bloggers not following established PR rules, that may well be the case. An interesting point, in fact, one which I would want to address as part of my blogger relations. If I build a relationship with a blogger, part of that relationship-building is a consensus on what the rules are of our relationship, and agreement between us to follow them. That may not be how it works with media relations but that’s how I’d want it to work in blogger relations. It’s a trust thing, part of the new force concept, etc.

    Eric, one other trouble with this whole story is how some bloggers have such a negative focus about Wal-Mart. So what’s wrong with going to their HQ? Apart from having to pay for the privilege yourself. And apart from it being in Arkansas, as some bloggers are saying :)

  19. Kami Huyse

    According the the conversaton over at Krempasky’s site (Edelman account rep for WalMart), WalMart is trying to give bloggers the same access as MSM. I think this is a good idea. He even says he thinks a few will take him up on it, which amazes me since they will have to pay for it themselves, in contrast to what was said in the original e-mails inthe NYT piece. I agree that as PR folk, we need to look at this from a lessons learned standpoint, rather than an anti or pro-WalMart stance. (Full Disclosure: I spend about 1/3 of my monthly household budget at WalMart).

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  21. Eric Eggertson


    What’s wrong with travelling to their HQ? I don’t like their business practices.

    I don’t need their advice on how to bypass a democratic union organizating drive by shutting down the only store to become unionized. If I want to pick up those tactics, I can just go to the nearest schoolground and watch the bullies push little kids around.

    They have an amazing system for maintaining inventory, and they do great work on employee morale. I’m sure for someone else, it would be a great learning experience.

    But it’s not my cup of tea, and I didn’t arrive at that opinion because I’m some ultra unionist, or because I’m a blogger. In Canada, anyway, they’ve shown a willingness to intimidate their employees with the ultimate threat — taking all their jobs away if they unionize.

    No amount of blogger relations, public relations or reputation management will turn me into a fan, unless they change the way they operate.

  22. neville

    Isn’t that at the heart of what the blogger relations campaign is part of, Eric? “Repairing” their reputation, ie, changing perceptions of Wal-Mart?

    I don’t feel the way you do (no Wal-Mart here) but, from what I’ve been reading about Wal-Mart, I can understand why you feel that way. I have heard similar views from colleagues in the UK where Wal-Mart owns Asda, one of the big UK supermarket chains.

    The important question, then, is this – how can PR help an organization if the foundation is unstable? No amount of communication will succeed in achieving the objective if there’s an imbalance in what the messaging is saying and what people see the company doing.

    Now there’s a great PR challenge.

  23. Kathy Hale


    Your point that “No amount of communication will succeed..if there’s an imbalance in ..message..and what people see the company doing is exactly right. May I contribute to the conversation by a quote from a recent post at my site….

    “When organizational identity is challenged by public criticism and is defended by massive PR campaigns, “The Battle of the Masks” is underway in the Blogosphere. Who tries to hold which mask (identity) on whom, and what public communication strategies will they use to do it? Whether individuals or organizations, we expect people to treat us as we claim to be, and people expect us to be who say we are. In our own practice and research, we find that conflict increases when (1) the “mask” or identity presented and the mask accepted don’t correspond, and (2) when “who you will be” at the end of a negotiation is more important than anything else you might get out of it. This blog is about authentic identity—created, monitored, negotiated, and sustained in the Internet world.” http://www.battleofthemasks.com/2006/02/

    Kathy Hale

  24. neville

    Thanks Kathy.

    You made a great point in your March 8 post – did Marshall Manson, the Edelman employee who did the emails, read one of the 250 copies of ‘Naked Conversations’ that CEO Richard Edelman bought.

    I’d guess not.

  25. PR Works » Did big PR agencies learn anything from l’affair Edel-Mart?

    […] A lot has been written/blogged/podcasted on the latest Edelman/Wal-Mart online PR fiasco (Neville, Shel, Everyone, Richard, Rubel.) There’s no need to pile on, but one thought has been bugging me. With an earlier Wal-Mart blogger-relations transparency faux pas occurring fairly recently, I find it odd that history has repeated itself. I’m having trouble figuring out how after such a high-profile mis-step that the appropriate filter wasn’t put in place to ensure that online PR activities for Wal-Mart passed an internal Edelman sniff test. They have experts, why wouldn’t you run your strategy by them to make sure it adhered to best practices? […]

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