NY Times: Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in Its Public Relations Campaign. Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters. But the strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, has been forthright with bloggers about the origins of its communications, and the company and its public relations firm, Edelman, say they do not compensate the bloggers. But some bloggers have posted information from Wal-Mart, at times word for word, without revealing where it came from.
It should go without saying that the bloggers should make this disclosure, right? No question, the ones who parrot a company line — down to using the company’s words — ought to be more forthcoming about the connections.
It should also go without saying, in that case, that newspapers (typically small ones) should not reprint press releases verbatim or nearly verbatim, at least not without disclosure. Yet some do, and the New York Times rarely (if ever) beats up on them.
And it should go without saying that TV stations shouldn’t use footage from “video news releases” (VNRs) without noting the video’s origins. Yet they do.
Most of all, though, it’s worth noting that people involved with stories, or their paid personnel, constantly talk with pro journalists. Now they talk with interested bloggers and others in the “new media” world. It’s part of the influencing and journalism processes, but it’s getting larger and to some degree messier.
I’d guess that most professionals realize they shouldn’t pass off other people’s work as their own. And the difference between advocacy and straight-up reporting, while sometimes less clean than we might like, is not a total mystery.
I don’t think the bloggers need to say they’re talking to Wal-Mart or its PR people when they make such postings. Journalistic transparency doesn’t have to include listing the people you’ve interviewed, though maybe that’s not such a bad idea to consider. Would that also include the disclosure that we’ve consulted the Web sites of the company or its supporters? Where does transparency end in telling readers/viewers/listeners about our research?
We should also note that the Wal-Mart PR person objected to the bloggers’ actions. That was responsible on his part. In the future when PR folks are asking bloggers for help, they should always make it clear that an outright quote without citation is a no-no.
Summing up: The Times is not making an unfair point with this story. To the extent that the paper now hammers on transgressions among professionals (and it has done so in the past, to be sure) it will be doing its proper journalistic job.
(Note: Richard Edelman, CEO of the PR firm advising Wal-Mart on its strategy with grassroots media, is a member of the Center for Citizen Media’s Board of Advisors. I didn’t contact him before writing this piece. I don’t like Wal-Mart, for many reasons, incidentally, but they have a right to be heard.)
- Richard Edelman: PR firms must be very conscious to abide by some very clear ethical standards, so that we do not compromise bloggers. First, we must always be transparent about the identity of our client and the goal of the PR program. Second, we should ask permission to participate in the conversation, and be comfortable with any communication being made public, whether by the blogger or an investigative journalist. We should support bloggers’ transperancy re. the source of their information. Third, we must reveal any financial relationship with bloggers, whether consulting or even reimbursement of trip expenses. Fourth, we must ensure that the information we provide is 100% factually correct and not “spin.”
- Jeff Jarvis: I think some newspaper ombudsmen should do PR audits of their papers. How many stories come from flacks without disclosure? How much of the substance of stories comes from flacks without disclosure? How many benefits accrue from flacks and companies without disclosure?