Wal-Mart’s PR practice smart but still PR

The blogosphere has been rumbling this week about a New York Times article Tuesday outlining public relations practices by Wal-Mart in engaging bloggers to help their image. The Times report was typically anti-blogosphere and painted the practices by Wal-Mart and their PR firm, Edelman, as suspect and manipulative.

What is different about Wal-Mart’s approach to blogging is that rather than promoting a product — something it does quite well, given its $300 billion in annual sales — it is trying to improve its battered image.

Wal-Mart, long criticized for low wages and its health benefits, began working with bloggers in late 2005 “as part of our overall effort to tell our story,” said Mona Williams, a company spokeswoman.

Jeff Jarvis leapt to Edelman’s defense, as did Dan Gillmor and David Weinberger. Each of these big name bloggers disclosed connections with Edelman, which has become standard operating procedure amongst bloggers who care about their work. Richard Edelman defended the practice (natch) and Steve Rubel (newly hired by Edelman) published an unnecessarily defensive piece on his blog on Wednesday.
Well, the blogosphere is only as transparent as the rest of society. Do things bubble up in the b’sphere that might normally not see light? You bet. Is the blogosphere helping to make marketing and society overall more transparent and accountable? Yes, that’s a good thing. However, our little corner of the Internet is not as transparent as everyone might hope. Lots of information needs to stay close to the vest, like it or not. Perhaps this will change one day.
The nut of the implication in the Times article is that Edelman is manipulating bloggers to tweak the image of Wal-Mart and that (those untrustworthy) bloggers are — in some cases — reprinting exactly what Edelman is telling them to say. Oh the shame of it all.

There are two important points to consider in this event. One, Edelman is simply doing what public relations companies have always done — whatever they can to tilt coverage of their clients in a favorable direction. You can argue the ethical merits of that all you want, but eventually you’ll be talking about public relations as a whole, not just Edelman or this particular form of flackery. For a newspaper to go after them in this way, therefore, is a little silly and falls under the category of “so what?” How many newspapers have published verbatim press releases and how many TV stations have run Video News Releases without identifying them as such? Plenty, so in this regard, the story is nothing more than another opportunity by the Times to take a self-serving shot at blogging by warning people that it’s a real wild west out here.

The other point, however, is that the concept of manipulating coverage is really a problem in the new media world, because it will always eventually backfire. In this sense, I agree completely with Umair Haque, who’s written that Edelman is guilty of bad strategy.

Note to Rubel and Edelman: if you guys want to leverage the edge, you have to learn from your mistakes — not just shrug them off. The question, despite what smart guys like Jarvis are saying, isn’t really an ethical one; that’s your mistake. It’s a strategic one. You’re much better off being transparent not so much because it’s “right” (though it is) but because that’s how self-selection happens at the edge. Without transparency, you guys will be the Yahoo of marketing 2.0 — trying, but never really learning.
There’s a great lesson in this for all of us who work in the Media 2.0 world where all of the power is in the hands of users. The law of attraction applies, not the law of promotion and certainly not the laws of deceptive manipulation. This is because people are now making their own choices from within what I call postmodern tribes, and there are two rules of this tribalism that relate to influence.
  1. Individuals now determine their own influences.
  2. Attraction is the defining dynamic of influence.

So the bottom line problem with the Edelman strategy is that it’s simply a Media 1.0 practice in a Media 2.0 world. Rather than spending time and Wal-Mart’s money working to influence bloggers from the outside, a better use of resources would be working transparency into all of Wal-Mart’s dealings with the press. That’s because “the press” increasingly is the people Wal-Mart serves day in and day out, and it’s smart business to dialog with your customers. If Wal-Mart wants a seat at the discussion table, it — and others like it — must be prepared to play by the rules we all learned in kindergarten:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • And more.

(Disclosure: I had dinner with some Edelman execs Monday night. The steak was okay.)

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