Edelman, Rubel Respond On Wal-Mart Flog

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A long week of commentary after news of the Wal-Marting Across America blog’s real backers and bloggers became known has finally elicited responses from top man Richard Edelman and company VP/A-list blogger Steve Rubel.

The fake blog, or “flog” as it was so neatly put by MediaPost, collected plenty of attention for things it didn’t say. Like its traveling bloggers were professional journalists, one a 25-year employee of the Washington Post. Or that its financial backing came from an organization created by Wal-Mart’s longtime PR firm, Edelman.

Answers were not forthcoming from Edelman’s people, either. The blogosphere picked up on that with several of the more widely followed blogs asking what happened here. Now, both Richard Edelman and Steve Rubel have responded.

This post came from Edelman today:

I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.

Let me reiterate our support for the WOMMA guidelines on transparency, which we helped to write. Our commitment is to openness and engagement because trust is not negotiable and we are working to be sure that commitment is delivered in all our programs.

And this response arrived from Rubel:

As my CEO Richard Edelman explains on his blog, our firm failed to be completely transparent. I am sorry I could not speak about this sooner. I had no personal role in this project. There is a process in place that I had to let proceed through its course. This is why it took some time. Like Richard says, we are committed to the WOMMA guidelines on transparency.

Neither post provided any other information on the ill-fated blog, which in itself was not a bad idea in concept. Additional details would be informative to see how the decision was made to go forward and try to cloak the participants and the backing from the public.

There are a few troublesome details to the story, to which the late Walter Matthau’s quote in “JFK” comes to mind – “That dog don’t hunt.” First is The Post’s Jim Thresher asking his boss for time off for the project, without being completely forthcoming about its backing. Thresher is very fortunate Executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. is not asking for a resignation, at minimum, for the “misunderstanding” between Thresher and the photo editor.

Second, Rubel said he did not have a “personal role” in the project. Why not? Wasn’t Edelman’s whole point to bringing Rubel into the fold to have the kind of knowledge and expertise with blogging that would have avoided the problem here? Why wouldn’t CEO Edelman want his top blogging gun involved? With such a high profile client, why wouldn’t Rubel ask to be involved?

Last, why so long to come out and say “mea culpa maxima” when the story has been percolating for a week online? Neither Edelman nor Rubel offered any details in their posts. Why did it take a week to say “oops?”

Here is a snippet from the instructive draft of those WOMMA guidelines Edelman helped compose. This is from the section called Honesty of Relationship:

* We practice openness about the relationship between consumers, advocates, and marketers. We encourage word of mouth advocates to disclose their relationship with marketers in their communications with other consumers. We don’t tell them specifically what to say, but we do instruct them to be open and honest about any relationship with a marketer and about any products or incentives that they may have received.

* We stand against shill and undercover marketing, whereby people are paid to make recommendations without disclosing their relationship with the marketer.

* We comply with FTC regulations that state: “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed.”

All of this could have been avoided easily with not just transparency, but an up-front discussion about what the traveling bloggers were doing. Wal-Mart is going to be criticized for virtually every action it takes anyway, so why not practice full disclosure up front, and say they are sending a couple of professional journalists on a RV trip to camp at Wal-Marts and talk to employees?

If that would have dissuaded Thresher and his partner Laura St. Claire, whose brother works for Edelman, from participating, there are plenty of people who would have taken their place. Critics will complain anyway (that is what they do) so why give them extra ammunition to do so?

It’s still a funny old world.

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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

Edelman, Rubel Respond On Wal-Mart Flog
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