Public relations bases its outreach on earned communication — whether through a social media tool, like a blog or podcast, or through gaining ink with a newsworthy story in the mainstream media.
But what happens when the public relation tactic chosen for a campaign becomes the story? And the tactic of contacting bloggers directly has become a pretty big story, damaging the credibility of Edelman, WalMart and the bloggers that carried their message.
That is what happened yesterday when the New York Times ran an article about a campaign designed by Edelman for Wal-Mart to reach out to bloggers. I was taught that good public relations stays in the background and never becomes the story.
Not only did the key messages not get out, namely that WalMart is a fair employer and shouldn't be overly regulated, the Times article prompted WalMart critics to go on the attack, and even prompted this employee to write about the article:
For me, this was the last straw. Despite my disgust with many of the company's practices, I was able to put them aside…sometimes out of fear of reprisals, sometimes due to my apathy, sometimes out of my respect for my fellow associates. If the company I work for is going to enlist bloggers to do its dirty work, then the least I can do is share my views and the views of co-workers of mine.[…]
When a press release is issued, and it is complete crap, I will let you know. If Walmartfacts.com skews its data, I will let you know. If management tells us about some new bogus policy, I will let you know. When the associates decry the HO, I will let you know.
Marshall Manson, an Edelman Worldwide account executive who worked on the Wal-Mart account exchanged cordial e-mails with bloggers determined to be sympathetic to the Wal-Mart message and made references to previous posts, obviously to let the bloggers know that he read their work.
This exchange made PR blogger John Wagner uneasy because of its obvious PR slant and I have to agree with him. It seems that Edelman chose to engage these bloggers in a similar fashion to how they might approach a mainstream media reporter:
1. Study their work
2. Tailor the pitch
3. Offer to be a resource
If you read the e-mails, Edelman was in essence offering a WalMart clipping service to the bloggers supporting the WalMart position replete with commentary, and that is where the trouble began.
Most bloggers aren’t reporters and have never dealt with public relations efforts. They might not know or even consider attribution of sources (outside of attributing other bloggers) and they are always on deadline. To top this off, they don’t usually get paid much, even with adsense, making it tempting to cut and paste to get out information that supports their opinion.
In other words, most bloggers are more likely to cut and paste releases or information verbatim than the mainstream media. Knowing this fact should help to inform how PR connects with bloggers in the futire.
“I'd encourage PR professionals to stop thinking that getting your releases run verbatim is a ‘good thing.’ It can definitely come back to bite you.”
It seems, at least in this case, that this is exactly what happened.[Update: There are a pretty good group of links about this topic, with multiple viewpoints, at the PR Linker, including sites that are non-PR related]