Edelman takes flak for Wal-Mart “flog”

One of the world’s largest PR firms, Edelman, has been very keen to look at the changing role PR in the age of social media, as I mentioned reporting from their London conference with Technorati last week.

Now the firm is being “called out” and heavily criticised by bloggers for a “fake blog” it ran for its client Wal-Mart.

I won’t dwell on the detail, it’s covered well enough by others, but basically a blog was created called Wal-Marting across America. Media Post sums it up:

A pro-Wal-Mart blog called “Wal-Marting Across America,” ostensibly launched by a pair of average Americans chronicling their cross-country travels in an RV and lodging in Wal-Mart parking lots, has been reduced to a farewell entry. One of its two contributors was revealed to be Jim Thresher, a staff photographer for The Washington Post.

The blog, launched Sept. 27, was profiled in this week’s issue of BusinessWeek, which exposed the site as a promotional tactic engineered by Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFWM), an organization launched by Wal-Mart’s public relations firm Edelman. WFWM paid for the RV and all travel expenses, rerouted the trip’s original plan, and plastered a logo on the RV’s side. Although the blog featured a link to WFWM, it did not identify the organization as a paid sponsor.

The blogger who wrote it defends themselves in a final post on the blog:

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.

They didn’t just give us permission. They said they would even sponsor the trip! A blog seemed the perfect medium to tell those stories — a perfect way to present a diary of my trip. I would post about the trip, not after the fact but from right out there on the road. And even more exciting, no editors! What writer could say no to that?

….We had heard that Wal-Mart’s critics could be vicious in their attacks. Now we know those concerns were valid. And we kept our professional lives out of it — where we work and what we do for a living — because this was not about the organizations we work for – I did this blog because I thought it would make a great story. Jim did this because we live together. We took vacation time in order to make this trip. We weren’t out there as representatives of our employers, or anybody at all but ourselves.

So now we’re being attacked. Why? Because we dared to write positive things about Wal-Mart. The people who hate Wal-Mart couldn’t argue with anything we said — we were writing about real people and telling true stories.

My take?: silly not to have declared the sponsorship. I don’t think it would have detracted from the Wal-Marting across America blog.

Once again the key issue for brands creating or sponsoring content in social media is more about is the content likely to be wanted. The Wal-Marting across America attracted very few links or traffic before this controversy broke.

What’s maybe exacerbating the criticism of Edelman is that they aren’t saying much about it: makes it look as if they have something. Also the blog itself (which bears a “sponsored by Working Families for Wal-mart” – not sure if this has always ) banner has taken down its previous posts and they don’t seem to even be available from the Google cache. The blog’s Flickr pages have also been taken down.

With some big blog gaffes in the past I’ve spoken to marketing and PR people involved – off the record – and there has been a blunder by an individual or a team somewhere along the line, and often a wider misunderstanding of how social media works in the organisation as a whole.

Whatever the issue here, I would say, with this amount of scrutiny, Edelman needs to come clean and issue issue a mea culpa / explanation pretty soon to kill the speculation.

Easy for me, and for other bloggers, to say, I know…

: : Media Post coins – at least I’d not heard it before – the word “flog” to describe a undeclared paid-for corporate blog.

: : I find the allusions to organized opposition in the Wal-Marting final post  and the Paid Critics blog on Working Families for Wal-Mart genuinely interest aspects of the online campaign for Wal-Mart. I’ll be taking a look at these soon.  

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