Edelman Has Been Through Enough

    October 24, 2006

I’m sure you’ve all seen some family-oriented TV show in which the teenager screws up big-time. When finally confronted by his parents, the teen is shocked that there will be no further punishment. “You’ve been punished enough,” the understanding parent says.

Edelman has been punished enough. The bashing the global PR firm has taken over three covert blogs maintained for client WalMart has been severe and sometimes downright nasty. The company’s reputation as a leader in social media has been severely tarnished and could take years to recover. The various calls for this or that person at Edelman to be fired or resign make for good copy, but don’t address the issue and certainly don’t reflect reality. Nor do calls for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) to revoke Edelman’s membership and send the firm into exile.

What, then, is reality?

Edelman has more than 2,200 employees in 46 offices worldwide, along with some 15 specialty practices. While I don’t know the dynamics of the company, I have worked for two global human resources consulting firms (William M. Mercer, which is still around, and Alexander & Alexander Consulting Group, now part of Aon Consulting). In both instances the culture was determined more by the local office leadership than the corporate leadership. I worked in Los Angeles for Mercer, which was a miserable environment. When I visited the St. Louis office, I was shocked at how congenial and uplifting the atmosphere was. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think I could have named the president of the company. Leadership was embodied-in Los Angeles, anyway-in a pension actuary named Dan White who ran the L.A. office.

Richard Edelman, the president of the firm, is, of course, accountable ultimately for his firm’s egregious missteps. To his credit, he has openly accepted that accountability and outlined the steps he will take to guard against any future such actions. I wish him well and hope his intentions aren’t undermined by the actions of somebody else in his organization. But let’s be clear: Just because the company president “gets” new media and is evangelizing it in his organization, this does not mean that some 25-year veteran account executive in a remote office has yet consumed the Kool-Aid. This hypothetical AE could look at blogs, rub his oily hands together, and say, “This is how we’ll bullshit the public.” It runs counter to everything Richard and his team may believe in, and the company will be well rid of such people. But with 2,200 employees scattered around the world, show me a president who knows the inner workings of the minds of all of them.

Given the number of people I meet who aren’t even sure what a blog is, it’s no surprise that among Edelman’s 2,200 employees, there might be some who would subject blogging to abuse. The same is probably true of any comparably sized (or larger) agency. This isn’t an excuse. My previous posts on the topic make my position on the fake blogs exceedingly clear. But spreading the gospel of ethical blogging is going to take time, particularly with longtime practitioners who are set in their ways.

As for Steve Rubel falling on his sword over the fake blogs episode, the uninformed thinking behind this is confounding. Steve works for one of those 15 specialty practices. That practice was not called into the WalMart account; he had nothing to do with the account or the blogs. Nobody is obliged to run their blogging plans by Steve for approval. He is not responsible for embedding an understanding of social media in every Edelman employee; he is responsible for meeting client expectations on those engagements in which his practice’s input is sought. If Steve worked on the WalMart account and recommended this approach, I’d sing a different tune. But his practice was not involved nor should he be held responsible for actions taken outside the scope of his influence.

I’m not sure what good expulsion from WOMMA would do. Sure, WOMMA could crow that its ethics guidelines have teeth. But the fact that a couple account reps acted in a manner inconsistent with the president’s own philosophy does not mean that the entire company has sinned. Remember, these were three fake blogs produced for a single account. Had there been three fake blogs-one each in three separate accounts, managed in separate offices-I would be far more concerned about Edelman’s overall ethics than I am under the current circumstances.

Better that WOMMA insist on working with Edelman directly to better instill the right word-of-mouth ethics in its employees. And some censure might be in order-certainly more than the, “Oh well, mistakes happen” approach WOMMA seems to have taken. (WOMMA’s only action so far has been to open a forum for public debate on the matter-public debate that seems to be happening perfectly well in the blogosphere without their forum.) At dinner this evening with the tireless Constantin Basturea, we speculated that WOMMA could end up being the story here instead of Edelman.

In any case, it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath, remember how the real world functions, and bring some reason to this discussion. Screaming for heads to roll may make some feel better, but it doesn’t help spread the gospel of ethical social communication. That takes time, dedication, and perserverence. I hope Richard Edelman is up to the task and that he puts Steve Rubel’s expertise to good use in the effort.



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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.