Edelman & Wal-Mart: social media in the blast radius

Two steps forward;                   
(Six steps back)                         
(Six steps back)                         
(Six steps back)                         
(Six steps back)                         

-- "At Home He's A Tourist"
Gang Of Four, 1979

I've been doing even more listening today - following the growing crapstorm over Edelman's rather spectacular pratfall with this "Wal-Marting Across America" blog.

In brief: a rather popular and entertaining little blog, apparently run by a blue-collar couple traveling across the States and parking their RV outside the nearest Wal-Mart every night, was revealed last week to be a complete fake. Turns out, the couple in question are professional journalists, and the blog itself was a creative initiative of the Wal-Mart account team at Edelman. Ouch.

At first, the thing that was troubling me most as I read through the pages and pages of blog posts and comments on this latest "astroturfing" scandal, was the missing words from Edelman's two most visible bloggers: Richard Edelman himself and, of course, Steve Rubel.  After taking a few days to chew the matter over and figure out the Five Ws of the whole thing, both Richard and Steve posted to acknowledge the error of their firm and accept ownership of the screw up.

But the key words I really wanted to see in their posts - particularly in Richard's - were buried just below the rather slick surface, alas. Five simple words: "We were wrong. I'm sorry".  I was concerned that Richard's very carefully worded "mea culpa" was rather too polished - a commitment to transparency, without a clear, succinct, and direct apology.

Now, to be fair, I've had a chance to read through a lot of the other dialogue in blog comments surrounding this thing - and, sure enough, Richard is right in there using the very words I was hoping to hear. Good. 

Would have been infinitely preferable, in my opinion, if he had come straight out with a more human-sounding post in the first instance - but OK: he is, at least, accepting responsibility for the mess, and saying he was wrong and he's sorry. That's an appropriately CEO-like act.

So now that I've had time to think about this a little further, the focus of my concern has shifted to a bigger issue.

The manner, tone, and timing of Edelman's blog response has taken a lot of flak - in the comments to their own blogs and elsewhere. Credit to Edelman that they've linked to their critics, and allowed both trackbacks and comments that are highly critical of their actions to stand.

Flacks take flak; accept it, acknowledge it, apologize, and move on. 'Tis ever thus.

But what I'm still trying to get my head around here is: what the hell were you thinking in the first place?

Were it to have emerged from pretty much any other PR firm, we'd be writing this campaign off as just another clueless attempt to game the social media world - just this year's Raging Cow. But this was Edelman, FFS - the guys who have been exalted by many as the most clueful of all modern agencies, the ne plus ultra of utterly blog-savvy, social media-smart PR firms. So, again: what the hell were you guys thinking?

I guess my point is that, given the extraordinarily high profile the Edelman team have gained in the eyes of the blogosphere and elsewhere, they've ended up - willingly or otherwise - becoming something of a bellweather for this entire "PR 2.0" thing. That whole "Me2Revolution" of transparency, openness, connectedness - the end of PR business as usual, and the emergence of something new, something better, something worth believing in.

Now you could argue the pros and cons of them occupying this particular exalted position, but I don't think it's an overstatement to suggest that, for many observers, Edelman had successfully gained (or maneuvered themselves into) a place of considerable influence in our still-evolving social media world.  For many clients just trying to come to grips with the blogosphere for the first time, Edelman - at least in the US and UK - had pretty much become the de facto PR experts in the space.

And that's what has me so worried.  Given their perceived leadership in this area - given, for example, their extremely important collaboration with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association in developing a Code of Ethics - do they not have an implicit responsibility to hold themselves to a much, much higher standard of behaviour than this?

For Edelman to screw the pooch so visibly here has broader ramifications for every PR firm trying to help clients get some kind of a clue. PR has enough of a reputation problem as it is without one of the perceived centres of a solution suddenly appearing to revert to being part of the problem.

I hope those WOMMA guidelines of transparency have been vigorously reinforced with each and every Edelman employee.

Richard - when you guys blow it like this, it makes us all look bad.

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