The Wal-Mart Blog Controversy

The New York Timesstory about Wal-Mart’s PR firm, Edelman, sending e-mails to pro-Wal-Mart bloggers should have portrayed the campaign tactic as a predictable, incremental evolution in corporate media outreach, instead of the scandal that some suggest it is, or the great innovation others claim it to be. I’m late on this. Many, many bloggers who focus on media and PR have already commented, some praising Edelman and Wal-Mart, and some condemning them.

With an extra day to think about it, a few things jumped out at me. The Times says:

Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.

Yet, the point of many of Edelman’s senior account supervisor Marshall Manson’s e-mails to blogger Rob Port at SayAnything.com is that the mainstream media has given Wal-Mart exactly the kind of coverage they want.  Manson links to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, the Charleston Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journal and widely-syndicated columnist George Will — a range of media outlets that all ran pro-Wal-Mart, anti-union commentary. It would’ve been more accurate for the Times to report that Wal-Mart’s opponents in organized labor are under assault.

Also, I didn’t see any “exclusive nuggets of news” in anything Manson sent; mostly links to already-published materials that could easily be found via Google.  Oh, and the invitation to tour Wal-Mart’s headquarters. Did that ever happen?

It’s exactly the kind of stuff a company like Wal-Mart, in the midst of legislative battles and in need of issue management, would have sent to activists, community leaders and sympathetic officials in the pre-blog era. Only now, some activists have blogs. What’s the big deal?

I don’t see how anyone’s mind is being changed by this campaign. Say Anything and the other bloggers with whom Manson corresponded are self-styled conservative, free-marketeers. It’s part of their creed that companies shouldn’t be forced by the government to provide health benefits, nor should they be forced to help unions organize their employees. They didn’t just start thinking like this because some PR guy wrote them an e-mail. This is what they already believe as a matter of principle. Wal-Mart’s case happens to fit that paradigm..

Manson took note of these conservative bloggers, and supplied them — with their permission — some more facts and quotes that he thought might help them make their case. For all the e-mails Manson sent — it’s a bit smothering — these bloggers didn’t react by becoming obsessive Wal-Mart posters. These bloggers have a sense of their audience, just like newspaper editors do. This was a good issue, but there were hotter issues. Which, I’m sure, the folks at Edelman expected, since reporters have been telling PR people the same thing for 100 years: “It’s a good story all right, but I’m not sure we want to do it right now.”

The Wal-Mart foes’ reaction to the Times’ scoop was rather Pavlovian. From WakeUpWalMart.com‘s campaign director Paul Blank:

“In an effort to salvage its declining image, Wal-Mart is now using conservative bloggers to promote its right wing agenda. Borrowing a page from Karl Rove’s playbook, Wal-Mart’s public relations team is trying to create a false sense of support for a flawed business model which is hurting families.

The truth is the American people deserve more from Wal-Mart than manufactured rhetoric and false notions of support. The American people will not tolerate deception. For example, there is no such group ‘Working Families for Wal-Mart.’ The group is a front, comprised of several paid consultants and business associates and staffed by Wal-Mart’s own public relations firm.

These dirty campaign tricks didn’t work for big tobacco and they won’t work for Wal-Mart…. “

If Paul Blank’s nose is a little longer today than it was yesterday, don’t be surprised. “Working Families for Wal-Mart” and “Wake Up Wal-Mart” are mirror images of one another. Two fake grassroots campaigns trying to convince elected officials that they’ve got the masses on their side. His pretend outrage at the dastardly tactics of Wal-Mart will not deter his campaign from using the exact same tactics — probably on the same day he issued his pronunciamento.

In fact, organized labor has been way, way ahead of corporate America in its use of the Internet to organize and educate its supporters. The first time I ran into a union-funded “astroturf” campaign, which appeared to be about one issue but was in fact meant to leverage an organizing campaign, was 1995. This union’s use of the Web was highly sophisticated and effective for its time; and labor has continued to do impressive things. I’m frankly surprised it took corporate America this long to pick up on labor’s tactics.

Richard Edelman (who I should disclose I used to work for) is a smart, forward-looking thinker. He uses his blog to define the PR industry’s continued relevance in the new communications era — what he has dubbed the Me2 Revolution:

The traditional approach to corporate communications envisages a controlled process of scripted messages delivered by the chief executive, first to investors, then to other opinion-formers, and only later to the mass audiences of employees and consumers. In the past five years, this pyramid-of influence model has been gradually supplanted by a peer-to-peer, horizontal discussion among multiple stakeholders. The employee is the new credible source for information about a company, giving insight from the front lines. The consumer has become a co-creator, demanding transparency on decisions from sourcing to new-product positioning.

(snip)

How can companies embrace this future of empowered stakeholders? Speak from the inside out, telling your employees and customers what is happening so they can spread the word for you. Be transparent, revealing what you know when you know it while committing to updating as you learn more. Be willing to yield control of the message in favor of a rich dialogue, in which you learn by listening. Recognize the importance of repetition of the story in multiple venues, because nobody believes something he or she hears or sees for the first time. Embrace new technologies, from employee blogs to podcasts, because audiences are becoming ever more segmented. Co-create a brand by taking on an issue that makes sense for your business, such as GE’s Ecomagination campaign where green is truly green.

Edelman’s vision is coherent and potentially inspiring. But sometimes clients get in the way of great PR campaigns.

A Wal-Mart campaign that relied on employees telling their stories via voluntary, regionalized, uncensored group blogs would be gripping reading, something legislators could not ignore. Whatever it might lose by a few employees saying politically incorrect things, it would gain back in authenticity. In all its fights with labor, Wal-Mart’s message has been, in essence: Our employees like things the way they are.

There is one sure way to prove that: Let the employees say it themselves. Risky, sure, but if they pulled it off, the union-sponsored campaigns would crumble.

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