Questionable judgment by Edelman in fake blog fiasco

Being largely offline for much of this week (and last) has been a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, I’ve been able to devote most of my attention to family-related things to do with my move to the UK last week. On the other hand, I’ve now got a ton of email to deal with and catch up with some of the interesting happenings that go on whether you’re online or not.

One such is a hardly-credible story involving Edelman and Wal-Mart that, as my podcasting partner Shel Holtz noted, is all about pulling wool:

[…] A blog ostensibly authored by a couple traveling across America in their RV and spending nights parked in WalMart parking lots turned out to be a fake blog, the brainchild of WalMart’s PR counselors at Edelman. While fake blogs (and other fake social media) are nothing new, it’s dismaying to see it emerge from Edelman, which has some of the smarter new-media people on its staff (Phil Gomes, Michael Wiley, Steve Rubel and more), and which touts itself as the PR firm that truly gets social media.
This is the third time (as Todd Defren noted in his post) that Edelman has botched the whole social media thing on WalMart’s behalf.

I shook my head in dismay when reading the accounts and opinions on many other blogs. Was this really Edelman involved in something stupid like this? Yes it was.

Read the detail in this MediaPost story, which is what many bloggers are referencing.

What brought this story to my immediate attention was a post earlier today by Hugh Fraser in which he noted:

[…] Interesting to hear the take on this in the For Imediate Release Podcast. It gives an impression of the confusion this debacle has sowed in the PR World. Presenter Shel Holtz rightly expresses sorrow and regret that Edelman should cock-up like this, then co-presenter Neville Hobson reports on how nice it was to meet Richard Edelman in London last week. Presumably Neville recorded his piece before this news broke.

The episode Hugh refers to was recorded yesterday, one of the shows where Shel and I weren’t live together. It was also one of the very few where neither Shel nor I really knew ahead of time what each of us would be talking about.

So when I listened to the completed show this morning, there was Shel’s Edelman critique a bit before my piece about the Edelman/Technorati London meeting. I recorded my contribution for the show on Wednesday.

Whoops, I thought – a bit of an odd juxtaposition of different commentary about Edelman in the same podcast!

That aside, the key issue here is what people are saying – in essence, the PR counsellors at Edelman have acted with extremely poor judgment in dressing up something for what it’s not.

This opacity is the complete antithesis of what social media is about and what Edelman have been championing for the past two years. Because they are widely regarded in the profession as the PR champions for social media, this comes as a bitter pill to swallow.

A very disappointing development. Not the first time with opacity, though.

So, Edelman, what do you say?

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. Shel Holtz

    And, of course, you sent me your contribution Sunday night as I slept, and which I pasted into the show Monday morning before dashing off to deliver a speech, so I didn’t (and still haven’t) get a chance to listen to it.

    Ah, the perils of being asynchronous.

  2. Todd Defren

    They (Edelman) are not saying ANYTHING so far… which, to me, is the most egregious part of the whole sorry mess.

    Hope your move went well. I hear that “moving” is right up there with “divorce” and “death of a loved one” in terms of stress levels!

  3. Hugh Fraser

    Hi Neville,

    The justaposition was a bit unfortunate, but at least it underlined just how unexpected it was for Edelman to do this. They’ve been a bit insensitive before, but since then they’ve got some wise bloggers on board. I just wonder what they are thinking now, as they see Edelman as one of the top searches on Technorati. Time for Edelman to apologise, but they probably have to clear it with Wal-Mart first, and that means admitting to their client that it was a lousy idea in the first place. Edelman have loads of brains – they even have the intellectual David Brain working for them – but it just goes to show that the cleverest of people make the silliest of mistakes.

  4. neville

    Just reading your post, Todd. I very much agree with your concluding comment – silence is not golden.

    Easy to make judgment calls about this, as everyone including me is doing more or less. Yet in the absence of any word from a protagonist, whether Edelman or Wal-Mart, it’s hardly surprising.

    The move has gone well, thanks. And yes, such things are up there with the two you mention!

    Hugh, that’s a good point re unexpectedness. It really does surprise me that it’s Edelman at the heart of this. I can think of two agencies who I could imagine doing stuff like this. But not Edelman.

    What I think will hugely help their reputation and people’s perceptions of them is if someone at Edelman – one of the credible names on their blog landing page – speaks up. Sooner rather than later.

  5. James Bruni

    Funny how Edelman tried so hard this week to get the Blogosphere to pay attention to their dumb new Technorati UK survey, while everybody in the Blogosphere is posting negative comments on their latest Walmart scandal.
    “Edelman” is one of the top search topics today on Technorati, and it’s all rants about Walmart again.

  6. neville

    You mean Wednesday night and Thursday morning, Shel. We just did Thursday’s edition, not Monday’s :)

    You’re right, James – Edelman is the number 2 search term on Technorati at the moment. I don’t think that’s a good thing at the moment.

  7. Hugh Fraser

    If only they had said openly that they were paying a couple of bloggers to travel across the USA using Wal-Mart carparks, everyone would have said what an immaginative and great idea, and they would have got lots of traffic (thought it was horribly written, “This great country of ours…etc”.@

  8. David Jones

    I bet the big social media brains at Edelman are looking for rocks to crawl under at the moment…I know I would be. (As you know I work at FH, one of Edelman’s competitors.)

    It seems so unbelievable that a firm that is so public in its social media leadership can keep making mistakes like this…on the same account!

    It just goes to show you that no matter what type of leadership you profess to have, experts on staff, etc. it’s all just window-dressing. Among the thousands of employees firms like Edelman and FH have, there are still just a handful who are well-versed in the dos and don’ts of social media.

    I have to believe they have an online PR policy like we do, or at least some sort of understanding that transparency is important in everything we do. But who keeps authorizing these less than appropriate uses of social media that get them in trouble?

    Isn’t Wal-Mart an important enough client to warrant the participation of Rubel or Richard when it comes to how they are proceeding online?

  9. Jonathan Marks

    Crawling under rocks? These jokers should get fired. First rule of the blogosphere – authenticity. And what next? The web also has an eternal memory.

  10. neville

    That thought crossed my mind too, Hugh. Full disclosure at the outset, and none of this kerfuffle would be happening.

    It’s perplexing to me why Edelman haven’t come out and joined the critical conversation. Is there more to this than meets the eye, I wonder?

    I’ve just been reading Constantin Bastura’s post in which he expresses some doubt that Edelman were behind the faux blog in question. That muddies the water even further.

    As for firings, Jonathan, you could be right although I’d really like to hear Edelman’s views on this story. Critical commentary of Edelman is mounting.

  11. Shel Holtz

    If Edelman isn’t behind the blog — or somehow associated with it — why aren’t they engaging in the conversation in order to set the record straight? My criticism was aimed less at the blog — you can read the final post on WalMarting Across America to get a sense of what the bloggers are insisting is the truth — and more at Edelman’s silence in the face of coverage and criticism aimed at them. As others have noted here and elsewhere, it’s shocking for a company that so vocally advocates engagement in the conversation.

  12. Debbie Weil

    Here’s my take on the Wal-Marting / Edelman fiasco. I do wonder if there hasn’t been some “crossing of the wires” on the whole thing. It’s hard to believe that Edelman would do something so stupid.

  13. neville

    It is hard to believe, Debbie. I’m extremely surprised that there continues to be silence from Edelman about this whole affair. While you could argue that not all the facts are known – and they’re not, I don’t think – so one shouldn’t rush to judgment, what would stop speculation and supposition all over the blogosphere are those facts, which surely Edelman can provide.

    The longer the silence continues, I think the more strident will be the criticisms of that silence, damage will be done to Edelman’s credibility and, thus, reputation.

    I agree with you, Shel, re focus of criticism. Not the faux blog per se but the lack of transparency (or is that honesty?) surrounding it and the lack of participation in the growing critical conversation.

    Very disappointing, to say the least.

  14. James Bruni

    Shel, you are right…. good PR starts in one’s own home. PR firms like Burson, H&K and, most of all, Edelman, can’t even handle their own crises, yet are quickly to be Media Experts when major corporations stub their toes.

  15. Hugh Fraser

    I’d love top have been at the meeting at Edelman when they said: “We’ve got a brilliant new strategy for managing this crisis – let’s ignore it.”

  16. neville

    Latest development – Richard Edelman has posted about this kerfuffle. Key comment in his post:

    I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.

    Thanks, Jonathan, for the alert.

    [Edit] Steve Rubel has posted as well.

  17. Alex Briggs

    Have the Wal Mart fiascos cost Edelman all the credibility they have gained as one of the pioneering social media PR agencies? All the negativity surrounding this episode could have the potential effect of scaring brands away from new media.
    That would be a sad result for all of us.

    Agree that they have not helped themselves by waiting so long to respond, but is there not a way for Edelman to pick up the pieces, hold their hands up, admit their mistake and the social media/big brand interaction not take a disastrous hit?

  18. 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? […]

  19. neville

    I don’t think they have lost their credibility, Alex, even if many bloggers seem to think that Richard Edelman’s apology post earlier this week should/could have been broader and deeper in its explanations. Take a look at Richard’s post – 92 comments when I last looked. Plus Steve Rubel’s post – 55 comments and 30 trackbacks.

    I think everyone needs to move on. Someone at Edelman made a mistake, that’s clear. The CEO has publicly acknowledged it, even if it took rather a long time to do that.

    I guess one consequence of this episode for Edelman is that, in the eyes of many in the PR community, they have fallen from the social media pedestal upon which they stood. It shows they are as fallible as other human beings. I don’t think their clients will punish them for that.

  20. Dennis Howlett

    I was out the loop on this until yesterday evening. This is a very serious blow for Edelman. 3 strikes and you’re out in states where you can be tried for this kind of stupidity. Not Edleman – after all, if you look at WOMMA, the wording is so vague as to amount to a free get out of jail card. If it was me, I’d make an example of Edelman so the world at large knows the PR industry takes ethics seriously.

    As for Steve Rubel’s non-statement, why could he not have had the nuts of Scoble and printed: ‘Yeah we screweed up big time and as chief Edelman Blog R-Ra person, I should’ve got us to ‘fess up as soon as we found out.’ I read somewhere Rubel said something like: If it’s a choice between the blog and the job, the job wins.’ How hypocritical is that?

    Come on Neville, I know you’re a glass half full type but would you have given any latitude to Dell? I don’t think so. Why give Rubel and Edelman a free pass on this?

  21. neville

    I have to admit, Dennis, that my confidence about Edelman as the leader in social media advocacy in PR has taken a massive knock following the latest revelations about more fake blogs.

    They have lost a great deal of credibility and probably a fair amout of people’s goodwill towards them.

    Now it’s all about one of the great PR challenges – what to do in a crisis. I hope they can demonstrate their expertise in this area.

  22. Dennis Howlett

    PR bloggers have done a fantastic job raising awaerness and none more so than Rubel-Edelman. The problem is they’ve been caught in classic PR command and control thinking. Which begs the question: Is the PR industry (as represented by Edelman) serious about this medium or are they engaged in a cynical ploy?

    Much as I find Amanda Chapel irritating on many things, she’s right when she says that Edelman is part of the problem.

    A question for you Neville – what would you like to see happen?

  23. PR Blog News » Edelman Shuts Up in Speak Up

    […] Not so. When Steve Safran, Managing Editor of Lost Remote politely asks Richard Edelman twice in his blog 6AM to “kindly share your thoughts on how the laptop giveaway fits or does not fit into your corporate ethics policies,” Edelman ignores him and instead exchanges pleasantries with fawning employees and associates.  Is this good P.R. from head of the world’s largest independent P.R. firm? In the post Questionable judgement by Edelman in fake blog fiasco in Neville Hobson’s blog over 30 people express their degrees of mystification by Edelman’s silence.  […]

  24. Mark Rose

    Isn’t it time to re-visit this considering Edelman’s gaping silence. He was very politely asked on his blog to address this – it’s like the giant elephant in the room. Yes, it is like a cynical ploy – a P.R. move to co-opt the blog movement and not engage in any real dialogue. Well, it’s inspired me to get back in the pit and blog again. Thanks Neville.

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