Holmes Report Blog

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

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."


  • At 10:54 AM, Blogger Mack Collier said…

    This happens frequently with advertising blogs, that are usually commercial, and need all the posts they can get. Recently a PR firm emailed the same press release to several advertising blogs, including BMA. I wrote a post on the release, and lifted a paragraph from the release, but identified it as a quote from the release in my post. Another blog ran the exact same section, but didn't identify it as a quote.

  • At 8:07 PM, Blogger Rich Hobby said…

    I agree completely with your view that this whole issue points out a double standard. How can someone from the media cry outrage over something that is basically a press release being sent to bloggers? In my opinion Edelman is doing exactly what a good pr firm should be doing - they are using new forms of technology to communicate their messages with the public.


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