Disclosure and transparency: It’s PR 101

Our little PR corner of the blogosphere is awash with opinion about the Wal-Mart/Edelman blogger outreach campaign stemming from a story in the New York Times on Tuesday.

Concise recap: This 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. The leading protagonist in this campaign is Wal-Mart’s PR agency, Edelman.

Much of the PR blogger community opinion is to do with the rights or wrongs of such a PR campaign and how it’s being executed, focusing as it apparently is on pro-Wal-Mart bloggers many of whom have distinct political leanings, plus peppered with subjective opinion about Wal-Mart itself (about which I have no desire nor interest to comment on).

Constantin Bastura has an excellent summary of many PR-related issues surrounding this story. And do take a look at Shel Holtz’ interview on CNBC’s SquawkBox for a succint 3 minutes and 30 seconds of what this story is about.

As I mentioned in my own post about this yesterday, I believe the concept of this campaign being conducted by Edelman is a great example of how any company can embrace the blogosphere with the new activity of blogger relations 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.

That’s where the good news almost ends as far as I’m concerned.

The focus of my post yesterday was to do with disclosure and transparency. Rather, lack of. Clearly my view that Edleman had exercised neither in their initial email approaches to bloggers hit the hot spot of a number of my peers in the PR community judging from the comments to that post – 22 so far including my own responses – most of which disagree with that view, some quite strongly.

Having read all those comments again as well as much of the blog commentary out there, I’m steadfast in my view. If anything, that view is even clearer and stronger than it was yesterday.

Let me disconnect my opinion from Edleman and Wal-Mart specifically and re-state it as two generic points as part of the advice I would give concerning credibility, real and perceived, to any client or PR agency who is contemplating outreach to any constituent group whether that group is bloggers, journalists, employees, investors, whoever.

  1. Full and clear disclosure of who you are and who you work for is paramount at the very outset of your contact. If you make that contact by email and assume that a brief email signature containing an abbreviated name of your company or agency is enough, or that those you are reaching out to will Google you or guess such things from the email signature, this illustrates a lack of respect (among other things) for those you are making contact with. Which leads to the second point.
  2. Respect those you are reaching out to by assuming they will not know who you are or who you work for unless you tell them, directly, clearly and unequivocally. If you work for a PR agency, you would do this by stating upfront in your outreach that you are contacting the person in your professional capacity as a representative of X company who is your client. Whether your particular approach in making contact is informal, folksy or formal, by email, phone or face-to-face, doesn’t really matter – that’s a point of style and individuality in how you determine the effectiveness of your approach. What does matter is that you make a full disclosure at the outset, thus enabling your contact to make a determination whether he or she wants to be part of a relationship with you. Or not. It aids your credibility in the eyes (perception) of your contact. It helps establish a foundation for trust.

A related multiple question is why would you not want to do this? Why would you not wish to be as open and transparent as possible so as to leave no reasonable doubt in anyone’s mind as to your motives for making contact?

In the context of Edelman, Wal-Mart and bloggers, plenty has been written in the past year on blogs and published as lists in books on blogging about the advantages of disclosure and transparency when reaching out to bloggers. One such list of do’s and dont’s is in the just-published Blogging for Business book (I received a copy the other day), which includes these key points:

  • Be candid about what you want from the blogger. Make sure you disclose your relationship with your organization at the outset.
  • While your pitch should be personal, don’t be over-familiar. While you probably learned a lot about the blogger from reading the blog, the blogger knows nothing about you. A blogger could easily resent this faux intimacy.
  • Don’t mass-pitch bloggers. You may send the same press release to a list of mainstream media correspondents, but each contact with a blogger should be unique, tailored to the interests and approaches of the blog.

The full 14-point list is on pages 81-83 of the book.

In the comments to my post yesterday, Michael Vanderdonk said that bloggers are a new force in PR. He’s right. In my reply, I said that 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.

Hardly something new to figure out for any PR agency.

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