Incorrect Citing Causes Wal-Mart and Edelman PR Heartburn

Summary: When you engage bloggers, be sure they don’t cut and paste your stuff without correct attribution. We love conspiracy theories and will read too much into it. Better yet, publish it online so it can be linked and referenced.
This week’s big business blog story was Wal-Mart paying bloggers to publish pro-company content.

Brian Pickrell, a blogger, recently posted a note on his Web site attacking state legislation that would force Wal-Mart Stores to spend more on employee health insurance. “All across the country, newspaper editorial boards — no great friends of business — are ripping the bills,” he wrote. It was the kind of pro-Wal-Mart comment the giant retailer might write itself. And, in fact, it did. Several sentences in Mr. Pickrell’s Jan. 20 posting — and others from different days — are identical to those written by an employee at one of Wal-Mart’s public relations firms and distributed by e-mail to bloggers.

This is another marker of businesses recognizing the blog format because it communities in a supposedly human, sincere and honest voice. The difference, as the article notes, is that this time a company is trying to improve it’s image – not promote a product. Blogger were promised the one thing they crave – the exclusive scoop – for their support. One blogger got smart as the controversy started to churn:

One blog, Iowa Voice, run by Mr. Pickrell, pleads for advertisers to buy space on the blog in anticipation of more traffic because of the article.

Sounds like Edelman – the company that managed the campaign – wasn’t too strict about the bloggers not lifting text word for word – and if you are going to cut and paste, not using attribution or putting things in quoted format. Edelman has even created an advocacy group Karl Rove would love – Working Families for Wal-Mart – now who could be against that? They’ve even decided to make the morning-after pill Plan B available at their pharmacies (assuming the pharmacist doesn’t dismiss the orders of a physician and deny the patient her medical care).
Richard Edelman wrote in his blog:

Bloggers can take care of themselves in this evolving world. They should be careful to disclose receipt of product samples, membership on advisory boards or any other financial consideration that might affect their impartiality. They, just like journalists, do not need to disclose their sources, but they should attribute specific content to a company or another blogger if used verbatim.

Of course the big obvious point is that if Wal-Mart wants to be a part of the blogosphere, then they should have a blog and not feed content to bloggers through email. This whole thing could have been avoided if Edelman or Wal-Mart had published the text that they wanted to on a site or blog, allowing the the original source to have been easily seen and referenced. Which is actually what Wal-Mart Facts is all about. Having this ‘open public’ approach and then channelling content to bloggers through a non-transparent channel comes off a bit suspicious – but probably it’s the old left-hand/right-hand situation. Wal-Mart could easily have an ezine for Wal-Mart facts along with a blog so pro-Wal-Mart bloggers can keep in touch and provide counterpoint to Wal-Mart’s current PR frictions.
The real point as has bubbled up after the initial Wal-Mart Evil meme was that bloggers didn’t cite sources and it looks like Edelman wasn’t able to head things off at the past with double-super-full disclosure (not to be confused with Animal House‘s double-secret probation).
Debbie Weil has a PDF of the Edelman emails – good to look at to see how a high-profile PR firm coordinates a blog/PR campaign for a high-profile client.
Dave Taylor: “The bloggers who would publish content from a PR agency verbatim without specifying its origin, are the same bloggers who would use an “rss feed to blog entries” tool to populate their weblog. And their weblogs are not very good reading and more often than not are just polluting the entire blogosphere anyway.”
Heh. Can you imagine if they’d used one of those ‘blog and ping’ spam cannons?

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