The Edelman Disaster

    October 18, 2006

The Republican party and Edelman, the public relations firm, have something in common these days. Both are suffering a crisis of confidence of their own making.

In the case of the GOP, the habit of claiming the moral high ground on “values” has inevitably fallen victim to a series of scandals that has shaken the faith of some true believers. Democrats, of course, are subject to the same human foibles but are more insulated from voter disillusionment, in this cycle anyway, because they have generally avoided wrapping themselves in the mantle of rightousness.

The Edelman disaster is also self-inflicted and in ways that are similar. No other PR company has used social media and the web more effectively to cultivate an image of fairness, accuracy and transparency. Steve Rudel and Richard Edelman have been, until now at least, considered straight-shooters who built online reputations for embracing the openess and directness of the blogosphere and enjoyed the enormous wellspring of trust this kind of relationship with readers can build.

Now, a lot of readers feel betrayed because Edelman constructed a blogging buzz campaign for Wal-Mart and tried to pass it off as the real thing. I’m sure other PR firms has tried similar stunts and some of them have probably worked.

What makes it a particular disaster for Edelman, however, is that two of its most prominent executives have carefully and deliberately courted the trust of online readers and fellow bloggers over a long period of time and betrayed that trust for short-term gain. In so doing, they have wiped out months of hard work and goodwill and committed two of the cardinal sins of public relations-they have made themselves the story and they made their client look bad.

This is further proof that social media has the capacity to do extraordinary good things for a company’s reputation, but only if it is honest about who is controlling the message.