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Edelman screws up with duplicitous Wal-Mart blog, but it's okay?
I've been watching the furor around the rather interesting Walmarting Across America blog with great curiosity as it's unfolded. The blog's been running for quite a while now (though all the historical posts have been pulled down, interestingly. In a bit, I'll show you how to get to them all, though, so keep reading) but only in the last few days has the blognoscenti figured out that it's actually all a sham and that far from being a couple who just "happened" to drive their RV around the United States, parking in Wal-Mart parking lots as they went, it's actually a carefully scripted - and funded - campaign from the esteemed Edelman PR.
That's a familiar PR agency because Steve Rubel, one of the best and the brightest in the blogosphere, joined the firm a while back and since then Edelman has been in the forefront of figuring out how to intertwine public relations and the world of blogging. With, apparently, mixed success...
The problem isn't that Wal-Mart wanted to leverage the thought and influence leaders you find in the blogosphere, that's just smart business and Wal-Mart is full of extraordinarily smart business people at all levels.
Hiring Edelman? That was probably a good idea, though now even that's a step that might well be reconsidered back at corporate HQ.
There are two real problems I see with the situation. First, the entire Walmarting Across America campaign was built upon a lie, a duplicitous backstory that while not unusual in marketing, was in direct violation of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's Code of Ethics, which Edelman helped craft.
I mean, it's just so damn ironic to read the WOMMA site and learn that its members:
"We rise to a higher level: We believe that word of mouth marketers have a special relationship with consumers and must go above and beyond the normal expectations of marketing ethics and honesty.
"We believe in honesty and transparency at all times: Honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity, respecting the rules of the forum, rising above the minimum requirements in privacy and permission."
As I pointed out in Dick Edelman's short and sweet blog posting on the subject, wherein he issues a curt apology, "How is it that you violate the WOMMA ethics rule and are still a member? In organizations like the National Speaker's Association, if you violate their ethical standards you're out. No questions, no debate. It's just that simple."
Rubel weighs in too, with the rather astonishing fact that he wasn't involved in the campaign at all. Why is that amazing? Because Wal-Mart is the second biggest company in the United States (They're #2 on the Fortune 500) and are surely an A++ client: if they want something done, wouldn't every PR agency put its very best on the project to ensure the most favorable possible outcome? Makes me wonder how bureaucratic and stodgy Edelman actually is, truth be told. Steve should have known about the project, checked it during lunch one afternoon, and immediately recognized the dangers of the project.
[Richard Edelman called me up and] says that they didn't do a good job here and he's working to educate his staff so this doesn't happen again. Steve Rubel also wrote about it and was pretty specific "our firm failed to be completely transparent."
Richard also apologized for his firm's error.
That's enough for me."
I'm just amazed at what an easy ride Edelman is getting with this significant and notable error of judgment on their part. It's not about apologizing for a screwup, it's being accountable to a code of ethics, having consequences for violating it, and having a sufficiently transparent internal management structure that lets experts like Steve Rubel at least know about all the blogging initiatives happening at the firm (Rubel explains in his comments that "Edelman has 2500 employees worldwide and I've never even been to Arkansas to meet with Wal-Mart").
Since we are talking about ethics and transparency, what does it say about the Word of Mouth Marketing Association that its members are apparently free to violate their agreed-upon ethical standards, with not much more than a light smack on the hand?
I want to highlight that we're not talking about Steve and Dick, garage bloggers, making a dumb blunder with some little firm that doesn't know much about marketing anyway, we're talking about one of the preeminent PR agencies in the world, one of the largest companies in the world, and one of the best bloggers in the PR space who should have been in the middle, ensuring that things didn't explode as they've done.
So, no, I'm sorry, but a three sentence apology doesn't mean that all is well again in the world of PR blogging, it doesn't excuse the unacceptable gaffe of Walmarting Across America, and I would like to see more from the players involved than a one-time apology and more business as usual.
Rather than just complain, however, can we agree that between this and the recent tempest in the PayPerPost teapot that it's time to create a Blogging Disclosure Best Practices so that we can at least all have similar expectations and maybe move forward without this sort of problem arising again and again?
Tip: if you go to the Walmarting Across America site, all the archives have been removed. That's a big mistake on their part, but you can still read the back postings by accessing the Google archives instead. Just search on site:walmartingacrossamerica.com and click on "Cached" to read Google's copy of the various entries.
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