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Mar 8
Wal-Mart, Blogger “Relations” and Healthcare Communications
The hue and cry within and without the blogosphere has been quite intense ever since the New York Times reported on Wal-Mart’s efforts to enlist bloggers in a pro-company public relations campaign yesterday.  For those (few) of you not in the know, the Times reported that Edelman’s Marshall Manson sent conservative bloggers e-mails containing (among other information) links to commentary about efforts to encourage Wal-Mart to provide health coverage to its workers. 

Read on for more . . . What's All This About?

The Times’ take on this issue is that Wal-Mart and Edelman were feeding pro-company propaganda to bloggers, which some then reprinted – without attribution – on their blogs.  The Times also said: “[According to Wal-Mart] Manson has not encouraged bloggers to reveal that they communicate with Wal-Mart or to attribute information to either the retailer, or Edelman.”  

John Wagner (On Message) and B.L. Ochman (What’s Next Blog) are disturbed by Edelman’s communications campaign.  Wagner has “mixed feelings” about the initiative, saying that “PR [firms] must be transparent” and ensure that bloggers are careful to disclose the source of information they get from a communications firm.  Ochman, in her usual style, says that Edelman is in a “sleazy relationship with right wing bloggers.”  

Ochman also wonders why Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasion (Edelman recently hired Rubel) has been silent on this issue, “ignoring the story and the blogosphere conversation about Edelman and WalMart’s critics.”  Rubel posted a response to his critics on this blog early this morning saying: “I did not have first-hand knowledge of the Wal-Mart account team's practices here, I have long believed that companies through their PR reps should build relationships with bloggers. As we do, our actions will inevitably bubble up to the surface as they did yesterday. PR professionals now live in glass houses. This puts it incumbent upon us to adhere to the unwritten rules of the blogosphere - to the letter.”

Richard Edelman has defended his firm and the campaign, saying that the company encourages “all our clients to reach out to the blogosphere.”  He also says that bloggers “can take care of themselves” and ensure that they practice full disclosure, especially when they use information from sources “verbatim.”

He also says that “PR firms must be very conscious to abide by some clear ethical standards, so that we do not compromise bloggers . . . [W]e must always be transparent about the identity of our client and the goal of the PR program.”

What I Think About Blogger “Relations”

Edelman has led the charge to encourage companies to engage with the blogosphere and I think that’s a good thing.  For example, on the healthcare front, I have supported (and endorsed) efforts by folks like Shahid Shah to encourage pharmaceutical companies to start blogging.  It could help bolster their reputation and foster dialogue about divisive and controversial issues.  

However, like most other people commenting about this issue, I believe PR firms need to be honest in their dealings with bloggers.  To quote Edelman’s White Paper, Trust “MEdia”, communicators should be “honest and transparent about [their] motives and intentions.  Make sure the blogger knows you are a marketing or PR professional."

Wagner has said that Manson “skirts the spirit of Edelman’s rules again and again.” After reading Manson’s e-mails, I have to say that I agree with him, but only in part.  In Manson’s defense, he identified himself as an Edelman employee and sent the e-mail from an Edelman e-mail account.  I’m sure that Rob Port knew that Manson was with a PR firm.  

However, in the interests of being fully transparent, Manson should have gone further than saying “I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart.”  He might have said: “I am an Edelman employee working on behalf of Wal-Mart.  I’m contacting bloggers to inject balanced commentary into the debate about Wal-Mart’s health insurance policies.”  Once Rob agreed to accept e-mails from Manson, he could have said: “Please ensure that if you use this information you say that it came from a public relations firm working on behalf of Wal-Mart.”  

So, is this issue a big deal?  Yeah, because it demonstrates to communicators that working with bloggers can be a double-edged sword.  Any communication with a blogger: e-mails, phone calls, etc. can be sent to a mainstream media reporter.  It’s like what they say about communicating with a journalist: “Nothing’s off the record.”    

In addition, communicators have the recognize that the mainstream media has an uneasy relationship with bloggers as they have challenged the traditional relationship between the media and the public.  Given this, PR firms have to be sure that their dealings with bloggers are squeaky clean.

Wal-Mart: Start A Blog!

Like Wagner and Robert Scoble, I think Wal-Mart should start a blog.  A Wal-Mart blog would generate a lot of attention because it would demonstrate that the company is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with its critics.  That’s what I think blogger “relations” is all about – encouraging dialogue and conversation.  E-mails are a poor substitute for a well-written, frequently updated, comment-filled blog.  

My advice to Edelman:  Ask Wal-Mart to launch a blog and supplement its efforts with e-mails to key bloggers announcing the blog and highlighting commentary posted on it.  That way, bloggers would be sure to cite Wal-Mart as the source of the commentary, as is customary in the blogosphere.

Implications Of “Wal-Gate” For Healthcare Communications

Reading this article and the commentary on this issue got me thinking about what this means for healthcare communications – especially as it relates to pharmaceutical companies.  For example, what if a communications firm working for Pfizer started sending e-mails to healthcare bloggers touting the company’s position on everything from drug pricing to reimportation?  What if bloggers reprinted portions of these e-mails without attribution?  What if it got out that Pfizer was doing this?  Let’s just say that Pfizer’s reputation would take another huge beating – people would crucify the company.  The potential for something like this happening may be another reason pharma has been so slow to engage the blogosphere.  

However, I think that “Wal-Gate” can teach healthcare communicators a lot about the benefits and drawbacks of social media communications.  Some key lessons include:

* Monitor The Blogosphere:  Clearly, Edelman monitored the blogosphere to tease out differing points of view on the Wal-Mart issue.  This is a good thing.  

* Reach Out To Bloggers:  Reaching out to bloggers is good, but ensure that communications are fully transparent and know that your e-mail may be republished by a blogger – for good or ill.

* Start Your Own Blog!:  Clearly, the best way to engage the blogosphere is to start a blog.  This will enable sympathetic and critical bloggers to comment and cite a company’s views.  Having an official blog also may decrease the chances that company will be accused of “sleazy” practices.

That’s my $15 on this issue.  Comments are appreciated and welcome.  

For a good overview of what other bloggers are saying about this issue, visit PR Linker.

4 Comments/Trackbacks




Fard:

Great post and good insight for pharma professionals.

I would add that if at all possible, engagement with bloggers should take place from the company itself, not its PR firm.

But the best approach is the one you mention -- have a blog, use it to communicate, and participate in the conversation. Don't try and manipulate it.

John:

Thanks for your comment. I agree that blogging is all about enhancing dialouge. I hope that my somewhat naive hope stays close to reality.

» Fast Company Features WalMart Blog: No, It's Not by WalMart from B.L. Ochman's weblog - Internet and corporate blogging strategy, and online marketing trends, with news and commentary
Posted by BL. Ochman WalMart isn't blogging. It's sticking to Edelman's advice to "advise" right wing bloggers about how great WalMart is. But Fast Company is running a WalMart blog, and it's not complimentary. Fast Company senior writer Charles Fishma... [Read More]

» Why Genzyme Should Start A Blog from HealthCareVox
Update: Read a five-part seriesfocusing on Genzyme that was inspired by this post. The newspaper articles were gut wrenching.  One recounted how a man sobbed as he phoned friends and family to raise money to pay for his wife’s expensive... [Read More]

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