The past few weeks have been a blur of client meetings and in-the-trenches PR work, so you can excuse me that I missed it when Business Week ran a story about a Wal-Mart blog gone bad and when my colleague John Wagner pointed out a similar story in Media Post. I am not going to write a scathing criticism of Edelman’s at this point, others have done a fine job of describing why this is such a bad move on their part.
However, I do have another perspective on this situation.
For those who were as behind as I was…Two working journalists, Laura St. Claire, a freelance writer and Jim Thresher, a 25-year employee of The Washington Post and a professional photographer cooked up an idea to take a long vacation in an RV and maybe even help pay for the trip by writing some articles about the experience for RV Magazine. Fair enough.
Writers do this all the time. As an editor for “Modern Homes,” a magazine published by the Manufactured Housing Institute, I know it is common practice for writers to send things to the editor on “spec” in hopes they will be published and payment made.
Listen to what Laura says happened next, “So I called my brother, who works at Edelman and whose clients include Working Families for Wal-Mart, in order to find out if we’d be allowed to talk to people and take pictures in Wal-Mart parking lots. As a freelance writer, I’ve learned over the years that it’s always better to ask about stuff like that in advance.”
Now, I happen to know that Edelman has been trying to give bloggers better access to the company, which I think is admireable, but what happened next was, as Debbie Weil said in the Media Post article, “foolish on so many levels.”
They offered to pay for the entire trip and suggested that Laura and Jim blog about it as they went. A journal without editors, as Laura describes it on the site.
I am going to take Laura at her word that she really is a fan of the kitchy culture of RVers who stay the night it Wal-Mart parking lots and that she wanted to write about it and experience it for herself. I am also going to take her word that she didn’t take any editorial direction from Wal-Mart or Edelman, their PR agency.
They did have a link to the right of the page that said the site was sponsored by Working Families for Wal-Mart; but this is unambiguously a Wal-Mart backed group. Ethically, the journalists were walking a fine line. No working journalist in his or her right mind would be financed by a company and then claim that it was balanced journalism. And Jim’s employer seems to agree, ordering him to repay the cost of the trip and to remove both his photography and comments from the blog.
And further complicating this, Laura's brother works for Edelman — a clear conflict of interest.
As for Edelman’s role in this, it should have been clear to the decision makers that if this was discovered, and it nearly ALWAYS will be, that it would be a major fiasco. In this case, media relations would have been a good strategy. Facilitate the trip, don’t fund it.
As public relations professionals, it is our job to rein in our ideas and test them in light of intense scrutiny before releasing them into the wild.
I highly respect many of the people working for Edelman, but I have to agree with Todd Defren that they need to tighten the reins in order to shore up their credibility, and that someone with authority needs to speak up soon. Of course, this may be seen as more advice from the rabble, but I think it has some merit.
Update: Richard Edelman takes full responsibility for the lack of transparency in the Wal-Marting Across America campaign. He also references the WOMMA values and guidelines on transparency. I also would like to see a lessons-learned post, not because Edelman owes us anything, but because it would be helpful for all of us pioneering in this new area of communication.
Constantin Basturea has a good wrap-up of the blogosphere response to the Edelman campaign.