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.