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.


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.
  • http://www.nevillehobson.com/ Neville Hobson

    Good commentary, Stuart.

    This isn't about whether you work for a big PR agency or not. It's about open, up-front and full disclosure.

    I don’t think the Edelman employee made sufficient disclosure, especially where the wording shown in the email transcripts is ambiguous. The first paragraph, for instance, could give the impression that the writer works for Wal-Mart itself.

    And the email signature shown in the transcripts is equally ambiguous if you’re not in the PR community or know who Edelman is.

    The point, though, to me is why wouldn’t the writer want to give full and unequivocal disclosure in order to be wholly clear and transparent as to his relationship with Wal-Mart?

    That’s certainly what I would have done, ie, be unequivocal.

  • http://www.pr-consultant.co.uk Stephen Newton

    Like you say, the issue is education. Journalists understand that PR is often outsourced and many bloggers don’t. Consequently there’s a certain amount of wheel re-invention and focus on irrelevance.

    The issue is that Manson speaks for Wal-Mart and he’s open about that. In this case he does work for Wal-Mart, so nobody’s been misled in any way.

    Similarly, if you’re attending an event on behalf of a client you’re more likely to have the client’s name on your badge than that of your consultancy and to introduce yourself as the client’s representative, all of which is true. You’re there to push your client’s business not your own.

    Nevertheless, his status as an Edelman employee might be relevant if it shows some connection to potentially competing, conflicting or conspiring businesses.

  • http://www.accmanpro.com Denis Howlett

    Looking at it from the outside – the important point is 'PR.' For many people that has specific connotations that need explaining. The fact it is Edelman IS important. They are an extremely powerful organisation. IMO.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/DLStickler/ DL Stickler

    Hello Stuart,
    Addressing your inquiries brings me back to the day I created the PROTS Blog after reading about how there seems to be no fast and hard rules about transparency
    and disclosure. You can see the PROTS (Public Relations Online Transparency System) Blog at http://protsblog.blogspot.com/

    To your inquiries;
    "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?"

    Full Disclosure in my view has to do with appropriate disclosure to the relevant public you are addressing. So determining this would involve invoking a rule somewhat similiar to the "need to know basis" within military operations.

    You ask these kinds of questions to figure out what to disclose and to whom:

    1. Who am I addressing?
    2. What am I disclosing?
    3. Why do I want to disclose or fail to disclose this bit of information?
    4. Where would I disclose such info? Within a private meeting or within some larger group dynamic?
    5. When should I disclose?

    As you move through the answers to these questions, it is likely you will arrive at some answers.

    Naturally, if you are working within any sector and any capacity, you should have a copy of your agency's contract right in front of you while you are reviewing these questions.

    The scope of your agency relationship for your client is determined by your agreement. That is one thing that seems to escape so many PR Practitioners these days; the fact that if you are working, you are doing so under an agency agreement of some type.

    This creates both the need for discretion and disclosure that is guided by the fiduciary responsiblilites incumbent within the agency relationship as guided by the agreement to service.

    Nice blog by the way…:)