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

Asleep at the Wheel?: Steve Cody has an interesting post over at his RepMan blog about the response of Sanofi-Aventis to charges that its Ambien sleep medication is causing people to drive while sleepwalking (or sleepdriving if that’s the term).

Steve is unimpressed with the company’s response, which is that it’s aware of the reports and that those reports have been provided to the FDA. He would like to see the company create a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the reports.

I have to say that my first reaction to this story is that Sanofi-Aventis must know something we don’t: like this is at least partly a hoax. The nasty suspicious and deeply skeptical part of me (by the far the largest part) suspects that drivers are taking the wheel after popping a few Ambien, in blatant disregard of the warning label, and then telling the cops they can’t remember a thing.

But even if that’s the case, once they name a syndrome after your product—the original story identifies “the Ambien driver” as a growing problem—you might want to look a little more proactive. Hoaxes can damage a company’s reputation quite considerably: just ask the Satanists over at Procter & Gamble or the cannibals at Wendy’s.

ADD: Mike Swenson, who blogs too fast for me to keep up with him, also has some thoughts on the Ambien story.
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.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Edelman Flunks Diplomacy: In a snippy article about the PR Week awards, the New York Observer's Jason Horowitz quotes Richard Edelman on his favorite subject: the changing trust landscape, the decline of the mainstream media, the rise of the blogosphere and its transformative impact on our business.

One of the things I like about Richard is that he's never learned when to be diplomatic--which is why Edelman is pretty much the only big PR firm with a personality. The other thing I like about him is, he's right more often than he's wrong.
Oops: Google still struggling to get the hang of this being-a-public-company, communicating-with-your-investors-thing.
Kurtz on the Wal-Mart "Scandal": Howie takes a pretty balanced look at Barbaro's piece and finds--like the rest of us--that the piece provokes nothing stronger than a shrug of the shoulders.

One interesting note, from Brian Pickrell of Iowa Voice, on the stuff he was accused of lifting uncredited from the Wal-Mart e-mail and republishing has his own: it was in a "quote box." So while it would have been nice to have him tell readers where it came from, it was pretty clear he was not trying to pass it off as his own thought. Maybe Barbaro didn't know what a quote box was or signified.
The Old Shareholder vs. Stakeholder Debate Resurfaces in the U.K.: The British government is considering (hat tip to my wife) a Company Law Reform Bill that would formalize directors’ responsibilities not only to shareholders but to other stakeholders.

Buried in a 780-page document—buried so deep the U.K.’s Institute of Directors apparently did not spot it when it initially voiced approval for the proposals—is a section that says directors—traditionally answerable only to shareholders—“must (so far as reasonably practicable) have regard to the likely consequences of any decision in the long term, the interests of the company's employees, the need to foster the company's business relationships with suppliers, customers and others, the impact of the company's operations on the community and the environment.”

I have three responses to this.

First, I think any sensible director, and any sensible management, should consider the interests of all stakeholders in the decision-making process. Reason whines that “the bill doesn't even create a hierarchy to direct directors whose interests take precedence.” What? Are directors so lacking in judgment, wisdom and experience—three things you’d like to think they were hired for in the first place—that they can’t make a decision that balances competing interests without being told which one to put first? Then maybe it’s time for some new directors.

Second, I think the law as written invites lawsuits while remaining at the same time completely unenforceable. How do you prove that other interests were really taken into account? Doesn’t “so far as reasonably practicable” give directors so much wriggle-room that it undermines the intent?

Third, I think the law could be improved immeasurably—and would have considerably more impact—if the word “must” was changed to “may,” In other words, giving directors permission to consider the interests of other stakeholders in addition to those of shareholders. Too many directors believe they have to act in the short-term interests of shareholders. Many would continue to act that way anyway, because of the pressure of the financial markets.

But it would be nice if they believed that every now and again they could make a decision that was in the long-term interests of all the company’s stakeholders.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Illusion of Control: Last year, when I was working on a story about word-of-mouth marketing, I spoke to a dozen or so public relations professionals on the subject. On more than one occasion, I heard that word-of-mouth was one of the things these PR firms had always done. But when I asked for case histories, what I got was: “We did this special event, and it generated lots of buzz. People were talking about it for days”
In other words, PR people were not only not creating word-of-mouth campaigns; they didn’t even know what word-of-mouth is.

Now along comes marketing guru Jack Trout, writing in Forbes (hat tip to the folks at Beyond Madison Avenue), and making the case that word-of-mouth “isn't new much less ‘the next big thing’ that WOMMA declares.” In fact, he says, “a third-party endorsement of your product has always been the Holy Grail. It’s more believable. In prior days, we used to try and find the ‘early adapters’ for a product.”

So there is someone more clueless than PR people.

Here’s the money quote, the one that reveals just how much Trout doesn’t get it: “Now for the really bad news. There's no way to control that word-of-mouth. Do I want to give up control and let consumers take over my campaign?”

I get the feeling that Trout is one of those dinosaurs who believe that—or would prefer it if—marketing took place is some sort of abstract, hermetically-sealed universe in which the consumer receives the tightly-controlled advertising message, discusses it with no-one, does no research, but simply takes the information he or she has gleaned from the ad into the dealership or the store and orders what the advertiser told him to order.

Well here’s a newsflash, Jack… you have to give up control and let consumers take over your campaign. They’ve been doing it for ever, anyway. Your brand is not what you say about your products; it’s what everyone else says about your products, based on your advertising, and your PR, and your promotions, but based much more on their experience with the product, in the dealership, in the store, on the Internet, and conversations with their friends.

What you say about your brand—the stuff you control—is about 10 percent of those conversations, if you’re lucky. The other 90 percent is stuff you don’t control, can’t control. And word-of-mouth marketing is a way of taking some control of that 90 percent, or at least working actively to influence it. It’s getting involved in as many of the conversations about your brand as you can.

You don’t have control now, Jack. You have the illusion of control. You can't build a marketing strategy around an illusion.
Wal-Mart Bloggers Exposed!: Michael Barbaro’s piece on Wal-Mart’s outreach to the blogging community has appeared, and despite the fact that it seems to be built around a large and peculiar double-standard, it can’t help raising some interesting issues.

The facts, briefly, are these. Wal-Mart’s public relations firm, Edelman, has been sending out occasional e-mails to bloggers it considers sympathetic to the retail giant’s cause (mostly conservative and prop-business blogs). Some of those bloggers have run stories based on the e-mails, while at least one appears to have simply lifted the e-mail unedited and posted the whole thing.

According to Barbaro: “The strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers.

As far as Wal-Mart is concerned, the story seems to underscore what I suggested yesterday, which is that this is simply a smart strategy, and there’s nothing remotely unethical about it. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even stray into any grey areas. It sends out releases, and some of them are used. It even advises bloggers against posting any of its releases unedited because, as Edelman’s Marshall Manson says, ““I’d be sick if someone ripped you because they noticed a couple of bloggers with nearly identical posts.”

Barbaro does not seem convinced that the PR team has gone far enough, though. “Mr. Manson has not encouraged bloggers to reveal that they communicate with Wal-Mart or to attribute information to either the retailer or Edelman,” he says.

I receive hundreds of press releases in an average week. I’m sure Barbaro does too. None of them, as far as I can remember, have ever “encouraged” me to tell my readers that I communicate with the company that sent them.

Therein lies the double-standard that permeates the entire story.

So when Barbaro does raise an interesting question, it’s hard to get past his bias. I think he is right to take some bloggers to task for lifting quotes without any editing and pasting them into their posts. I think Glenn Reynolds has it right when he tells Barbaro: “A blog is about your voice, it seems to me, not somebody else’s.”

I don’t think there’s anything unethical about what the bloggers are doing, any more than it’s unethical for a newspaper to lift the first paragraph of a news release (and a lot of basic “Joe Smith joined XYX Public Relations” press releases get very little editing from me) and run it unedited. It’s lazy. It might even be a little bit disrespectful to your readers. But there’s nothing unethical about it.

Oh, and he also accused bloggers targeted by the story of being "defensive" because "when they learned that The New York Times was looking at how they were using information from the retailer, several bloggers posted items challenging The Times’s article before it had appeared." I'm not sure how that could be construed as defensive, especially since one of the bloggers (smart dude) started soliciting advertisers on the basis of the increased traffic he expected as a result of Barbaro's coverage.

Ultimately, there’s not much of a story.

Except for the last couple of paragraphs, in which Barbaro makes what I interpret to be a pretty sleazy attempt to embarrass Manson, who appears to be doing a first-rate job on behalf of his client. Barbaro seems to have trawled through Manson’s personal blogs and picked out a couple of posts he made before working for Edelman to suggest that “he has written critically of individuals and groups Wal-Mart may eventually call on for support.”

That whole paragraph seems pretty low class to me.

ADD: Prominent progressive blogger Atrios agrees with my assessment. "PR people reach out to me all the time. So what."
We Get Wal-Mart...: And the French get E. Leclerc. Hardly seems fair.

For those who have not yet been introduced, E. Leclerc is a French retail giant and its CEO is Michel-Edouard Leclerc, profiled here by the FT, which draws attention to his abiding interest in social issues and his use of blogging--a useful form of brand building because French "hypermarkets" are not currently allowed to advertise on television.

He's the French equivalent of Mark Cuban, except he spends his time discoursing not about his business but about the environment and the rights of the handicapped and aid for the victims of the tsunami.

He features prominently in Scoble and Israel's Naked Conversations, where he tells the authors: “I like public debate. I have a passion for political questions. With my job, I happen to be at the head of an extraordinary observatory of social life. I am managing a network that works with 8,000 industrial suppliers, around 30 banks, and all the administrations. Thanks to these links, I have gained a certain vision of society. You should not leave the political expertise only to the political professionals.”

Perfect mentality for a blogger.

Monday, March 06, 2006

So Much for Building Democracy: The U.S. military will continue its campaign of deception and media subversion in Iraq. I assume this means America has now abandoned any pretense at building democratic institutions over there.
The Times Sees a Conspiracy (Maybe): I suspect it is by now well known that I am no fan of Wal-Mart. So when I got an e-mail from a reader about an article New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro is working on about Wal-Mart’s outreach to the (largely conservative) blogosphere, I so wanted to find something outrageous, unethical, or even mildly deceptive about the company’s activities.

Sadly, I just don’t see what the story is.

Blogcritics.org reports, with its tongue firmly planted in its tongue, about Barbaro’s line of questioning, which “seems to have been aggressive and penetrating—as if he was searching for a sign that Wal Mart was planting stories he himself should have been honoured with.”

Barbaro appears to have noticed several stories popping up simultaneously on conservative blogs around the country, and concluded that the stories were the result of some sort of insidious campaign by Wal-Mart and its public relations agency, Edelman. Of course, stories about Wal-Mart pop up simultaneously in the mainstream media all the time, usually as a result of an insiduous practice called the “press release.” Will Barbaro be investigating this next?

John McAdams, author of the Marquette Warrior blog, provides a pretty comprehensive list of mailings he received from Edelmen, along with details of what he used and when and why. Once again, the only real difference between the bloggers’ reporting and that of the mainstream media is that the bloggers appear to be more transparent in terms of their sources.

I’m note sure why Barbaro thinks there’s something strange or wrong or newsworthy about a company reaching out to the media. As far as I can see, Wal-Mart is doing two smart things: first, it’s recognizing the influence of the blogosphere; and second, it’s building a relationship with potential allies and advocates. That’s just basic public relations 101, isn’t it?

What’s really interesting, however, is the fact that Barbaro’s story is getting so much attention on the web before publication. That’s an indication of how much the game has changed. The fact that Barbaro is even reporting this story is viewed as news by the blogosphere, and has given rise to some interesting speculation about his story. It may even change the way the story comes out, or—if Barbaro realizes he’s on to precisely nothing—stop it coming out all together.

Will companies learn from this, and pre-empt investigative stories by blogging about the reporter's questions? Maybe not, since most companies want to maintain friendly relations, even with hostile media. But it's a useful weapon to have in the PR arsenal.
Bloggers More Transparent Than Mainstream Media: Last week, a group of bloggers from the United States toured Amsterdam at the invitation of the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions. The bloggers were given free flights on KLM and accommodation at either the Lloyd Hotel or the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky (both are five-star hotels near the centre of Amsterdam). In exchange, the bloggers agreed to run advertising for Holland.com on their site for a month, and to be interviewed about their experiences on the trip.

They were not required to write anything positive about their trip or to blog about it at all (although most did). Still, there were those who questioned whether accepting the invitation was ethical.

Obviously, that’s a good debate to have. Given the transparency of the whole venture and the absence of any quid pro quo, I don’t really have a problem with these bloggers accepting the hospitality of the Dutch. Actually, I think it was smart and forward-thinking of the Dutch to reach out to bloggers the way tourist authorities have been reaching out to mainstream reporters for years.

And whatever your opinion of the blogger ethics, they are at least holding themselves to a higher standard than their counterparts in the mainstream media. Because while the bloggers were enjoying their fully-transparent junket, reporters from Los Angeles television station KTLA were accepting free accommodations at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton Hotel in exchange for favourable coverage, and told their viewers nothing of the exchange.

In many sections of the PR community, there’s s still a feeling that blogs represent the wild-west of media relations, unregulated and free of standards. My observation is that the best blogs, the ones that have devoted a great deal of energy to building up credibility with their readers, hold themselves to higher ethical standards than the mainstream media. They are more open about their biases, quicker to correct erroneous stories (with more prominent corrections), and considerably more transparent than their “mainstream” counterparts.