Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Wal-Mart: Was It Manipulation?: John Wagner has an interesting perspective on the Edelman-Wal-Mart-bloggers story, in a post headed “Manipulating the conversation shouldn’t be the PR pro’s objective” (hat tip to Media Orchard).

John doesn’t feel that “journalists accept press releases without disclosure, why shouldn’t we?” is an adequate defense. He believes bloggers should hold themselves to a higher standard—and he believes PR people should be listening to and participating in the conversation rather than manipulating it.

John appears to be a little more confident than I am that he knows where the line between manipulation and participation should be, but I'm inferring from the timing of his post that he thinks Wal-Mart was on the wrong side of the line or at least too close to it for comfort. (I may be reading too much into it: he never actually mentions Wal-Mart.)

Obviously there is a continuum between mere participation (posting a comment that discloses your identity and your interest in a topic, for example) and outright manipulation (blogging on behalf of your organization with no disclosure). Where to draw the line along that continuum is not a question with an obvious right or wrong answer.

Does writing to a blogger and asking that he or she not reveal your identity constitute manipulating the conversation? Is it manipulation for a giant corporation to do it but okay for a whistle-blower who fears for his job to do it? (If you answered yes to the first and no to the second, is that a double-standard?)

Personally, I’d be uncomfortable with a corporation that suggested a topic for a post but asked for anonymity, but as far as I know Wal-Mart made no such request. If it had, I suspect it would have backfired. The fact that (some) bloggers chose not to reveal their source, tells you more about them than it does about Wal-Mart.

What Wal-Mart did was no different from what anyone does when they write to a blogger and say :”You should write about this.” I get a handful of those e-mails every day, and I don’t consider the people who are sending them to be “manipulating” me. (I’m not sure they are participating—really participating—in the conversation, either.)

What worries me about some of the critics I’m hearing is that people are judging Wal-Mart not on what it did, but on what it is. They find the practice sinister because they find Wal-Mart sinister. That’s a matter of taste, opinion and politics, not ethics.

5 Comments:

  • At 2:51 PM, Blogger John Wagner said…

    Paul:

    I agree whole-heartedly that it's difficult to draw a solid line with regards to transparency and participation.

    That's why I believe the onus for responsibility MUST BE on the professional PR agency and client, and not on the amateur blogger.

    Is it manipulation to hire bloggers with a known political bent and use those connections to gain entry to friendly blogs?

    Is it manipulation to use an e-mail address that does not readily identify you as a PR agency employee, then not disclose that in the body copy of your introduction?

    Is it manipulation to ply friendly bloggers with weekly message points, over-the-top schmoozing about how well received the bloggers' posts are and offers of an "exclusive" that is nothing more than just a standard media junket?

    Whatever you call it, it's a far cry from "engaging customers" and "facilitating the conversation."

    I don't have a problem with Wal-Mart reaching out to bloggers. As I wrote yesterday, the devil is in the details of how it transpired.

     
  • At 4:36 PM, Blogger Paul A. Holmes said…

    "Is it manipulation to hire bloggers with a known political bent and use those connections to gain entry to friendly blogs?"

    I don't think there's anything wrong with hiring bloggers, or with asking those bloggers to contact other bloggers, as long as they're clear who they are working for. What's the alternative? only hiring non-boggers to reach out to bloggers? And there's a difference between identifying yourself as a blogger and "using your connections to gain access."

    "Is it manipulation to use an e-mail address that does not readily identify you as a PR agency employee, then not disclose that in the body copy of your introduction."

    I would say it is. Do you know something I don't. Nothing in the Times story, or the blogs I've read suggests this was the case, in fact the bloggers I've e-mailed were quite clear that Manson identified himself from the outset.

    "Is it manipulation to ply friendly bloggers with weekly message points, over-the-top schmoozing about how well received the bloggers' posts are and offers of an "exclusive" that is nothing more than just a standard media junket?"

    Nothing wrong with regular story ideas... over-the-top schmoozing seems like a pretty subjective standard to me... one man's polite conversation is another man's OTT schmooze, I guess. As for the press junket, since the bloggers were told they'd have to pay for it out of their own pockets it doesn't seem like much of a junket to me.

    I don't disagree with you about the onus being on the PR firm/client... But I also think there's a slightly paternalistic tone to your "over the top schmoozing" line... as if these bloggers are mere children who can be manipulated by a little cheap flattery. These are for the most part pretty sophisticated, hardened bloggers and I suspect they wrote what they did because they sincerely believe it (however wrong-headed they might be) not because they were manipulated by those clever PR folks.

     
  • At 11:08 AM, Blogger Shel said…

    I also find it interesting, Paul, that some have said that it's okay to pitch bloggers when you have a beta service or a product or a book you want them to review, but not when you have an issue you want to seed into the blogosphere.

    As to John's assertion that the big bad corporations are taking advantage of the poor, gullible bloggers, I find this argument a bit disingenuous. First, the bloggers have put themselves out there as commentators on social issues. Two, the information provided by Wal-Mart is just another resource, as is commentary from other blogs and mainstream media. Third, I wonder if he would have felt the same had it been Ben & Jerry's offering pro-labor content. And finally, I worry that a company cannot engage with bloggers by sheer virtue of the fact that it's a company, despite the fact that nobody seems to have a problem with labor unions and activist groups taking precisely the same approach.

     
  • At 4:54 PM, Blogger John Wagner said…

    Paul:

    I agree completely that a lot of this is subjective ... that's why it's a fascinating issue and why it's worth discussing.

    I'm not against the idea of blogger outreach, but I don't believe the language, tone and approach used by the PR representative was straight-forward and honest. I'm not alone in that assessment. And there are certainly others who feel as you do. That's why it's a story.

    On another note, you and Shel's defence of these bloggers is all well and good, but I'm looking at this from a bigger perspective. If we agree that this type of communication is appropriate, then who's to say agencies won't all start looking for other "friendlies" we can utilize who perhaps aren't as hardened? Or will the gold standard be to simply interact with the grizzled commentators, and leave the MySpacers and others alone? I doubt it.

    By its actions and words, Edelman sets itself apart as the big agency that "gets" social media. Surely pitching a bunch of issue-friendly bloggers talking points once a week -- and telling them how great they are when they parrot the party line -- isn't what they have in mind.

     
  • At 10:13 AM, Blogger Paul A. Holmes said…

    Shel... like you, I can't help wondering whether there isn't a double standard at work here.

    John... I'm not sure I think there's much danger of companies targeting more innocent non-grizzled bloggers, because those bloggers are unlikely to have either credibility or influence. These bloggers are useful because they have a following, they have a following because they've been around a line.

    As for your final point: I don't thnk this is the only thing a cutting edge company should be doing, but it's certainly one of the things they should be doing.

     

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home