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PR’s steps and missteps into the Webby world

I haven’t blogged anything about the recent discovery that “Wal-Marting across America,” a blog recounting the travels of a couple from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart, was in fact funded by Wal-Mart through Edelman PR. In its wake (1 2), Edelman disclosed that Working Families for Wal-Mart and its subsidiary site, Paid Critics, are also Edelman sites. It seems to me unambiguously wrong for Edelman to fund sites for clients without making that clear on the sites themselves. I haven’t blogged that (until now) in part because it’s so obvious and in part because, as a consultant to Edelman, I’m in a conflict.

By contract and body language, Edelman has not attempted to control or influence what I blog. Never. There are, however, three important inhibiting factors. First, no matter how genuine and warm the relationship, taking money from an organization taints what one thinks about that organization; that’s why I have repeatedly disclosed my relationship. Second, as a consultant, I’ve been in a position to observe how the company interacts, what sorts of ideas it contemplates and rejects, and what it embraces enthusiastically or reluctantly. It would betray their trust — and get me fired as a consultant, and keep other companies from hiring me — if I were to blab about that stuff. But that makes it hard for me to write about an affair such as the Wal-Mart one, even though I didn’t know about it beforehand. Third, As a result of consulting to the company for the past year and a half or so, I’ve developed personal relationships with people there, including with Richard Edelman, whom I’m proud to count as a friend. I’m not objective.

So, with that in mind:

Edelman’s non-transparency about its Wal-Mart programs erode the trust that makes the Blogosphere valuable. It also forces the question of whether professional PR has any place in the Blogosphere.

I think it does, but it’s not going to be an easy transition. Full transparency is the minimum requirement. But, that’s not enough. Being transparent about funding blogs is hardly what it means to do enlightened PR on the Web.

I personally think there are two fundamental roles for PR in the new world: Transparent advocacy and facilitating open, genuine engagement among customers and companies. Transparent advocacy means that the agency argues for its client, providing useful information to people who want to receive it. Genuine engagement means the agency helps its client participate in the Web conversation honestly and frankly, whether that’s through employee blogging, customer forums, or ways yet to be invented. Just as the agency can be a transparent advocate for the client on the Web, it should be an advocate for Web values to the client, counseling the client to be frank, honest, and open to criticism. (An agency may also create publicity stunts, but there’s nothing particularly webby about that.)

I also want to add — keeping in mind the three factors that mitigate against my credibility on this topic — that I believe that Edelman PR overall is genuinely committed to behaving well on the Web. That it has gone so wrong in the Wal-Mart instances is an indication of just how different the Web is, and how difficult it is for an agency that has bet its future on getting the Web right to break free of its long-learned instincts. PR has a long road ahead of it.

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