Edelman screws up with duplicitous Wal-Mart blog, but it’s okay?

I’ve been watching the furor around the rather interesting Walmarting Across America blog with great curiosity as it’s unfolded. The blog’s been running for quite a while now (though all the historical posts have been pulled down, interestingly. In a bit, I’ll show you how to get to them all, though, so keep reading) but only in the last few days has the blognoscenti figured out that it’s actually all a sham and that far from being a couple who just “happened” to drive their RV around the United States, parking in Wal-Mart parking lots as they went, it’s actually a carefully scripted – and funded – campaign from the esteemed Edelman PR.
That’s a familiar PR agency because Steve Rubel, one of the best and the brightest in the blogosphere, joined the firm a while back and since then Edelman has been in the forefront of figuring out how to intertwine public relations and the world of blogging. With, apparently, mixed success…

The problem isn’t that Wal-Mart wanted to leverage the thought and influence leaders you find in the blogosphere, that’s just smart business and Wal-Mart is full of extraordinarily smart business people at all levels.
Hiring Edelman? That was probably a good idea, though now even that’s a step that might well be reconsidered back at corporate HQ.
There are two real problems I see with the situation. First, the entire Walmarting Across America campaign was built upon a lie, a duplicitous backstory that while not unusual in marketing, was in direct violation of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Code of Ethics, which Edelman helped craft.
I mean, it’s just so damn ironic to read the WOMMA site and learn that its members:

“We rise to a higher level: We believe that word of mouth marketers have a special relationship with consumers and must go above and beyond the normal expectations of marketing ethics and honesty.

“We believe in honesty and transparency at all times: Honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity, respecting the rules of the forum, rising above the minimum requirements in privacy and permission.”

As I pointed out in Dick Edelman’s short and sweet blog posting on the subject, wherein he issues a curt apology, “How is it that you violate the WOMMA ethics rule and are still a member? In organizations like the National Speaker’s Association, if you violate their ethical standards you’re out. No questions, no debate. It’s just that simple.”
Rubel weighs in too, with the rather astonishing fact that he wasn’t involved in the campaign at all. Why is that amazing? Because Wal-Mart is the second biggest company in the United States (They’re #2 on the Fortune 500) and are surely an A++ client: if they want something done, wouldn’t every PR agency put its very best on the project to ensure the most favorable possible outcome? Makes me wonder how bureaucratic and stodgy Edelman actually is, truth be told. Steve should have known about the project, checked it during lunch one afternoon, and immediately recognized the dangers of the project.
But what most galls me is how most of the top bloggers are quick to pop onto Edelman’s 6am blog and say that all is forgiven. So far, the ranks include Teresa Valdez Klein, Mathew Ingram, Neville Hobson and, on Rubel’s blog, Debbie Weil and Robert Scoble.
In fact, Robert goes as far on his own influential blog to say “all is forgiven, we still love you”, in so many words:

[Richard Edelman called me up and] says that they didn’t do a good job here and he’s working to educate his staff so this doesn’t happen again. Steve Rubel also wrote about it and was pretty specific “our firm failed to be completely transparent.”

Richard also apologized for his firm’s error.

That’s enough for me.”

I’m just amazed at what an easy ride Edelman is getting with this significant and notable error of judgment on their part. It’s not about apologizing for a screwup, it’s being accountable to a code of ethics, having consequences for violating it, and having a sufficiently transparent internal management structure that lets experts like Steve Rubel at least know about all the blogging initiatives happening at the firm (Rubel explains in his comments that “Edelman has 2500 employees worldwide and I’ve never even been to Arkansas to meet with Wal-Mart”).
Since we are talking about ethics and transparency, what does it say about the Word of Mouth Marketing Association that its members are apparently free to violate their agreed-upon ethical standards, with not much more than a light smack on the hand?
I want to highlight that we’re not talking about Steve and Dick, garage bloggers, making a dumb blunder with some little firm that doesn’t know much about marketing anyway, we’re talking about one of the preeminent PR agencies in the world, one of the largest companies in the world, and one of the best bloggers in the PR space who should have been in the middle, ensuring that things didn’t explode as they’ve done.
So, no, I’m sorry, but a three sentence apology doesn’t mean that all is well again in the world of PR blogging, it doesn’t excuse the unacceptable gaffe of Walmarting Across America, and I would like to see more from the players involved than a one-time apology and more business as usual.
Rather than just complain, however, can we agree that between this and the recent tempest in the PayPerPost teapot that it’s time to create a Blogging Disclosure Best Practices so that we can at least all have similar expectations and maybe move forward without this sort of problem arising again and again?

Tip: if you go to the Walmarting Across America site, all the archives have been removed. That’s a big mistake on their part, but you can still read the back postings by accessing the Google archives instead. Just search on site:walmartingacrossamerica.com and click on “Cached” to read Google’s copy of the various entries.

17 comments on “Edelman screws up with duplicitous Wal-Mart blog, but it’s okay?

  1. Dave — great points.
    I think the “easy ride” Rich / Steve have had is in direct relation to the amount of good will they’ve earned, and probably how much the blogosphere has forgotten since March of this year when the whole Edelman/ Wal-Mart thing was announced in the first place.
    There’s no amount of “I’m sorry” that will wipe off the oceans of pie these two gentlemen have found themselves in … and I think that you’re not the only one who is waiting for consequences of any significance.
    I mean, what would happen if any old mid to upper level executive made a goof on this scale? Of course they’d be turfed faster than you can say “astroturf”.
    Since Richard’s the CEO of the firm, one wonders how significant the fall out will really be.
    t @ dji
    PS I also agree on your notion of a Bloggers Best Practices … but as with the whole WOMMA thing (i.e. Edelman being a founding member, then violating its tenets) one wonders what the whole concept of self-policing really means. 😛

  2. I guess it�s not over yet. In fact, someone will come up and ask the one and only question:
    Who did it?
    And the answer will be:
    Not Steve Rubel. Not Richard Edelman. IMHO: Mike Krempasky did it. Mr Rathergate himself.
    I�m pretty sure they�ll drop him. What, in fact, would rather be an Krempaskygate. 😉

  3. Very good points and yes I guess they should resign from WOMMA. Maybe they should blog about how it happened within their company and what steps they are taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

  4. There are several issues but the biggest one is integrity: building something on a lie gets one found out eventually; and WM are ashamed and want to brush it under the carpet-otherwise why pull the files.
    The second biggest is the attitude of the top guys in blogosphere. Makes one shudder to think that a pat on the back after an feeble apology is all they care about the lack of respect for deontological rules.
    More rules and regulations, even with the best of intentions? Is not up to the blogosphere community to act, at least those with some moral fiber, and through the undesirable elements into Coventry?
    Enjoy the day

  5. I think there are a lot of parallels here between this situation and the HP debacle. Somehow, when people rise to the top levels of office today, they seem to think that the rules of conduct no longer apply to them.
    I don’t think we can overestimate the value of trust, how easy it is to lose it, and how hard it is to get it back. A large part of the social malaise in North America today, in my opinion, is directly caused by this lack of trust, and one of the most important components of this is the failure to punish [and I mean punish *severely*] those people guilty of a breach of trust.
    All Wal-Mart and their associated experts had to do was to put at the head of their “blog” the fact that this was in fact a simulation, and had no relation to any real events, being mounted for advertising purposes. I bet it still would have had some effect, without any of the downsides.
    I am just a simple worker bee, and not a highly paid CEO of an organization whose responsibility it is to give expert advice in these matters according to a well known defined code of conduct, yet even I would think that this would be wrong. So why can’t the highly paid CEO “Maximum Leader” see this?

  6. Jeez… could it have anything to do with the massive amounts of money they’re getting from Wal-Mart? And what if they lose the account on account of all this monkey business? Up the creek there, eh? Money changes everything, as they olde song goes.
    And one other thing, a lot of people just really like to shop at Wal-Mart. Imagine that.

  7. Great post Dave.
    IMHO, Edelman should fund a governing or oversight board for WOMMA and accept the fate of that board’s decision.
    What good are WOMMA’s Code of Ethics without enforcement and consequence?
    Is there no punishment for those in power for lying and manipulating?

  8. Dave:
    This is one of the outcomes of putting tactics ahead of doing the right thing for clients. And of course, there’s the whole issue of taking a new form of communication and simply turning it into the same kind of advertising that agencies have been doing since the dawn of man. After all, advertising is when you pay people to say good things about your product and that’s what they did here.
    We weren’t as forgiving and you can read our posts at http://blog.brandexperiencelab.org/experience_manifesto/2006/10/mediapost_publi_5.html

  9. Dave
    I pretty much agree with what you say. I’m amazed at how so many of the ‘top bloggers’ seem to be willing to Edelman a pass here. A quick scolding and then a hug. But then again, I now see why…
    It’s because they’re focusing on Richard Edelman himself, and not the company. Over the past two years, while they’ve been evangelizing blogs and the ‘genuine voice’ aspect and setting certain standards, they’ve also been hanging out in a virtual sense with this prominent CEO of a major PR firm who is treating them as if they are peers.
    That’s pretty cool.
    Then the firm screws up and gets caught violating the very same principles that they had advocated and created. All it takes is a phone call/email/some other appeal from “Richard” and…it’s OK. Richard cleared it with us and it’s not a big deal. Richard. Richard. Richard.
    They’re somewhat enamored by their relationship with “Richard” the big CEO and are someowhat honored that he (or perhaps Steve Rubel) would contact them or perhaps make a comment on their blog regarding this fiasco. So all is forgiven. “Richard” has got a big firm to run and he’s doing his best.
    The problem isn’t “Richard”, the problem is the firm. If you or I did this – or a smaller firm (let’s say 15 people) that had played a significant role in the development of blogs as an effective communications tool had created the blogs, we’d be toast. The blogging community wouldn’t give us the benefit of the doubt.
    But a personal appeal from a bigtime PR CEO – who very likely wasn’t involved at all in this effort – goes a long way.
    Jonathan Trenn

  10. Dave,
    Thanks for the illumination. I was willing to forgive Rubel and even offered him a monkeyphonecall (via linked in) since Scoble didn’t “love” his.
    (recap below)
    So who *should* I offer it too? I won’t someone to experience it and if Steve Rubel wasn’t the mastermind- then who?

  11. Hey Dave,
    Thanks for clarifying your position on my blog. I know what it’s like to be misquoted so sorry for any misunderstanding it may have caused.
    Re: blogger disclosure — I am co-chairing a council for WOMMA on Blogger Relations with Robert Ricci from Weber Shandwick’s Web Relations group. There’s an initial list of 10 principles for marketers to follow up for discussion and I’d love to get your take.

  12. I need to stay in the loop. I never even heard about this back when it was going on. Unfortunately, Google doesn’t have the pages in their records anymore. Guess they filed a request to have the pages removed. Fortunately, you can still find a few pages at archive.org

  13. Let’s be really brutally honest about this – the ONLY reason wal-mart backpedaled was because they were getting skewered on EVERY cable network news and Network news reports, in addition to the internet. They would not have done this, otherwise.
    Let’s also be really honest about another fact – absolutely NO MEMBER of the Walton family (Sam’s Kids), stepped up to offer to help this woman and her family. It’s really shameful. Collectively they are worth what….over $30 Billion?
    Wal Mart, and the Walton family are PATHETIC excuses for corporate citizens, and take no interest in their employee’s well being. They can issue are the PR to the contrary, but let’s be really honest – their true colors came through in this instance.
    Lee Scott, and other senior executives need to have bad things happen in their lives, maybe then it will hit home. Perhaps they will then develop some sort, ANY level of empathy. Until that happens however, they will remain truly useless examples of human beings. I wonder how their spouses feel about this? Are they are embarrassed by Wal Mart and the Walton Family as the rest of America at this time?

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