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.

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. Gary Goldhammer

    Neville, for what it’s worth, I would hire you in a heartbeat :-) As you may know (I finally got around to writing about this issue this morning and tracked back to your earlier post) I am one of the too few who agree with you. You are right — this has little or nothing to do with “blogger relations” and everything to do with PR common sense. Any college freshman PR major could tell you that what Edelman’s employees did was less than forthright — or at least I hope any college freshman PR major could say that, otherwise the future of PR is in more trouble than I thought.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful and spot-on posts this week.

  2. neville

    Thanks, Gary, I appreciate your words. So let’s work together on something :)

    I saw your trackback and read your post. And very glad to see another voice calling out on this issue which is not really about Wal-Mart and Edelman but about common PR sense. precisely as you say.

  3. John Wagner


    You’ve hit the nail on the head … the onus for transparency falls on the professional agency, not the amateur blogger.

    It would have been very easy to do this right, and then I think we WOULD have a non-story.

    However — as Kami has stated so well — Edelman became the issue. Why? Because the whole approach is just icky (I tried to find a more sophisticated word for it but failed).

    If those e-mails had come from Podunk PR in Evansville, Ind., the entire PR blogosphere would be having a field day kicking the poor SOB who wrote them around the internets.

  4. neville

    Icky’s a good word, John. A nice technical term!

    This really should be a non-story. Disclosure, transparency – basic PR learning things, for goodness’ sake!

    Still, it’s a useful exercise in thinking about such basic issues and articulating points of view. Part of a broad and informative debate, in fact, taking into account everyone’s posts.

  5. Niall Cook

    My initial reaction to this story (or non-story, depending on your own PoV) was to dismiss it as old media making mountains out of new media molehills. I still think there is some truth in that.

    But having had chance to read the actual email chains (something I am concerned that those who commented on this issue didn’t bother to do), I’m coming round to Neville’s way of thinking. As a result, I’ve been reviewing every interaction I have had with bloggers on behalf of a client. I think (hope) we’ve been forthright in our disclosure.

    That said, let’s not just assume (as the Blogging for Business bullets appear to suggest) that all agencies want to do is pitch bloggers in the hope they might write about our client or their latest widget. We don’t. In fact, we’re having a struggle stopping our clients from doing exactly that!

    Some of us realise that it’s about building relationships, and in order for that to happen there has to be some kind of engagement. And yes, sometimes we will have to do that on behalf of our clients if we’re going to facilitate any kind of meaningful conversation (with full disclosure of course).

  6. neville

    Niall, thanks for such forthright commentary. It’s very good to know that Hill & Knowlton at least sees the fundamental issue and what is the right thing to do.

    You have a very good point about building relationships. The word ‘pitch’ is at best a misnomer, I believe, in that it sounds like an activity that’s as impersonal and controlled as the mass outreach that PR’s been doing for years with the media.

    While this new thing that we’re now calling blogger relations is still being developed, and mistakes will undoubtedly be made during the learning curve, it does include the basic principles of common-sense behaviours, eg, full disclosure of interest. And, by the way, that’s a two-say street – disclosure must happen from both sides.

    I’m also far from convinced about the current street wisdom which says that all bloggers are some kind of separate tribe who will shaft you at the drop of a hat as they pursue their anarchic ways as part of a “I’m a blogger and I do what I want” approach to their dealings with business people.

    Some will, of course, but building relationships is a two-way process and requires mutual trust and respect.

  7. Kami Huyse

    I really appreciate your efforts to boil this down and start to seperate it from Edelman. I think the lesson is for all of us to learn and I agree that transparency is paramount. I have included the PRSA Code of Ethics about transparency to show that this issue is not a new one in the PR community. I am not implying Edelman broke any of these guideliunes, but I think it is important to see what many of us SAY we follow. It is a pretty high standard:

    Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.

    • To build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.

    A member shall:
    • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
    • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
    • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
    • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
    • Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s organization.
    • Avoid deceptive practices.

  8. neville

    Very good point, Kami, and thanks for pointing out the PRSA code.

    There’s also the IABC Code of Ethics which starts –

    These principles are essential:

    * Professional communication is legal.
    * Professional communication is ethical.
    * Professional communication is in good taste.

    Recognizing these principles, members of IABC will:

    * engage in communication that is not only legal but also ethical and sensitive to cultural values and beliefs;
    * engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding; and,
    * adhere to the following articles of the IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators.

    I’d say that the second point in the paragraph immediately above is especially relevant here.

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