Ethical questions about Edelman and Wal-Mart’s blog campaign

Neville Hobson has an interesting take on the New York Times story about Wal-Mart, Edelman PR and bloggers. Neville’s view is he doesn’t think that Edelman account supervisor Marshall Manson was sufficiently up front in disclosing his affiliation.

I’ve already commented on Neville’s blog that I personally think he did practice full disclosure. Manson’s email pitch started:

Hello. I hope you’re well. I just wanted to drop you a line and introduce myself. I’m a blogger myself (I contribute to Confirm Them and Human Events’ blogs among others), but for my day job – I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart, working with Mike Krempasky who runs Redstate.com.

Neville’s alternative is:.

Hello. I hope you’re well. I just wanted to drop you a line and introduce myself. I’m a blogger myself (I contribute to Confirm Them and Human Events’ blogs among others). For my day job, I’m a senior account supervisor at Edelman PR where I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart, working with Mike Krempasky, the head of Edelman’s online public affairs department, who also runs Redstate.com.

Personally I think they are both quite good. Interestingly Neville keeps in the bit that I think is really bad "I hope you’re well" is just too cheesy and insincere in your first email to someone you don’t know.

The most significant difference between the two is Neville’s says "I’m a senior account supervisor at Edelman PR".

My ethical question is why does this matter? In 2006 I don’t think it does. Let’s just consider some of the myriad of different relationships that could exist:

  • External PR consultant based at PR company’s office and working for several clients
  • External PR consultant based at PR company’s office and only working for one client.
  • External PR consultant based at client’s office and only working for that client.
  • Full-time in-house PR based in company’s office.
  • Full-time in-house PR based at external PR company’s office
  • Part-time PR working for company, based in their office for two days a week but employed for another two days by a PR company working on different clients
  • Freelance PR on a fixed one month contract with company and based in their office
  • Freelance PR on a fixed one month contract with a PR company based in their office and working only on that client
  • Freelance PR on a fixed one month contract with a PR company working for several clients
  • Freelance PR on a fixed one month contract with a PR company working on only one client and based in that client’s office
  • Freelance PR on a long-term contract with the company doing one day a week, working for other people on other days

All of these are ‘real’ examples of scenarios I’ve either experienced or seen. You can probably think of lots of other possibilities.Why is it such a big deal what someone’s employment status is? Is a big PR company better or worse than a small one? Is either different to a freelance?

So the question is what is full disclosure? Do all of these people have to declare their employment status? Or only some of them? If so which ones and why?

The crucial thing for me is knowing what their affiliation is. I want to know who’s angle they are pushing. The Edelman email makes this crystal clear in the second sentence (Neville’s version does it in the third!) when it says "I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart". I just don’t see how you can be any clearer than that..

Is it because Edelman is a huge PR company?

Neville does say that "Seeing ‘Edelman’ in the email signature, you may not make any connection with the professional capacity of your correspondent especially if you’re not in the PR community yourself."

I’m not sure what is meant by this. If it was a smaller PR company then even people in the PR community wouldn’t know who it was. And if they didn’t then what benefit would they get from including a phrase such as "I’m a senior account supervisor at Acme PR". It doesn’t tell me anything relevant. I already know they do "online public affairs for Wal-Mart". Why am I interested in the name of their company?

I’m all for full disclosure but everyone – be they bloggers, journalists or consumers – has to take responsibility for their own actions. Edelman didn’t seek to hide who they were. It was in the email so everyone who received it knew. If it mattered to them who Edelman was, and they didn’t already know, then it would take all of five seconds on Google to find out.

I agree that blogger relations needs a different approach to media relations but I don’t think that you have to treat bloggers as if they are daft.