Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in Its Public Relations Campaign

Michael Barbaro has finally published his exposé revealing that bloggers have written about Wal-Mart after getting PR releases from Edelman’s Marshall Manson. Sure, the blogosphere broke the story two days ago but, then, as we know, Barbaro’s work needs more editorial supervision.

Brian Pickrell, a blogger, recently posted a note on his Web site attacking state legislation that would force Wal-Mart Stores to spend more on employee health insurance. “All across the country, newspaper editorial boards — no great friends of business — are ripping the bills,” he wrote.

It was the kind of pro-Wal-Mart comment the giant retailer might write itself. And, in fact, it did.

Several sentences in Mr. Pickrell’s Jan. 20 posting — and others from different days — are identical to those written by an employee at one of Wal-Mart’s public relations firms and distributed by e-mail to bloggers.

Who the hell is Brian Pickrell? What blog does he write? Where’s the link to those posts? (Twenty-one paragraphs into the piece, we learn that Pickrell is the author of Iowa Voice, but are not given his URL or links to any posts.)

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.

Glenn Reynolds, the founder of Instapundit.com, one of the oldest blogs on the Web, said that even in the blogosphere, which is renowned for its lack of rules, a basic tenet applies: “If I reprint something, I say where it came from. A blog is about your voice, it seems to me, not somebody else’s.”

Interestingly, they link Reynolds, probably the most famous blogger, even though his comment is not on the site yet they don’t link an obscure blogger whose posts they are citing. Most odd.

Regardless, I am in full agreement with Reynolds on this one.

Bloggers who agreed to receive the e-mail messages said they were eager to hear Wal-Mart’s side of the story, which they said they felt had been drowned out by critics, and were tantalized by the promise of exclusive news that might attract more visitors to their Web sites. “I am always interested in tips to stories,” said one recipient of Mr. Manson’s e-mail messages, Bill Nienhuis, who operates a Web site called PunditGuy.com.

But some bloggers are also defensive about their contacts with Wal-Mart. When they learned that The New York Times was looking at how they were using information from the retailer, several bloggers posted items challenging The Times‘s article before it had appeared. One blog, Iowa Voice, run by Mr. Pickrell, pleads for advertisers to buy space on the blog in anticipation of more traffic because of the article.

So, there you have it folks. Wal-Mart’s PR firm does PR for Wal-Mart, including sending press releases to people who might write stories about Wal-Mart. Sometimes, those people either use the information to do their own research or, in the case of at least one blogger, actually use some direct quotes from said press releases without attribution.

Like Reynolds, I source any direct quotes. Many reporters, however, do not. I have read numerous press stories, for example, about a new poll or study that has been released by some group. Invariably, when I start to look deeper to see what biases the sponsor had, what methodology they used, and so forth, I find that half the story came from the press release or Web site. Invariably, the story was written as if the reporter has actually gone out and interviewed the people being quoted.

Update: Danny Carlton notes that “the New York Times also solicits advertisers to pay to be on the pages of their stories” and that they have quoted from his message board without attribution.

Several bloggers quoted in the story have responded. John McAdams observes that,

[Barbaro] doesn’t push too hard on the notion that bloggers should acknowledge the tips and leads that produced a story, perhaps because we forcefully asked him whether New York Times reporters do that.

He responded that “we have a book” — meaning that they have rules to follow.

We demanded of him whether the rules at the Times require acknowledging mere tips and leads, and he responded “I don’t know.”

We also pointed out to him that Times reporters include in stories material given “on background.” Such material can be used in a story, but the journalist not only can not identify the source, but can’t even allude to having a source.

Bill Nienhuis believes, “There isn’t a code of ethics other than the heart and soul of each individual blogger. There are a wide variety of blogging styles; the copy-and-pasters, the linkers, and those who write then cite.”

Pickrell contends,

As for the “we had help”, yes….we get “help” all the time. Readers send in tips. Other bloggers send in tips. We get updates from news websites, political campaigns, special interest groups, and so on. I’d venture to say that just about any reporter receives the same thing. Plus, they have the AP at their back. And face it, the AP is just a massive PR group when you look at it.

Update 3: Duncan “Atrios” Black weighs in.

Unless I’m missing something this New York Times article is just another stab at holding bloggers to ethical standards and practices which don’t apply anywhere else in the universe.

The public relations industry existed long before bloggers came along and they had reporters’ phone numbers long before they had the email addresses of bloggers. Barely edited press releases have long been published, especially at smaller newspapers. I get press releases and information from all over the place all the time. Obviously disclosure is a nice idea if there are any financial relationships, a practice not always followed by our hallowed 4th estate, but if people want to devote their blogs to throwing up Wal Mart press releases they’re free.

Wonk is similarly unimpressed: “So let’s summarize: Wal-Mart hires flacks to find already-sympathetic bloggers and make them… even more sympathetic.”

Update 4: Steven Taylor observes that, “The real story here, it seems to me, isn’t the disclosure habits of bloggers, but the overall fact that an actor the size of Wal*Mart sees blogging as a legitimate and worthwhile vehicle for information dissemination (and, yes, spin).” Quite right. And I suspect that’s much of the impetus for this and similar stories from the mainstream press.

Update 5: Jeff Jarvis, who once had a mediocre pastry purchased for him by Edelman, gives this advice:

If you write a post inspired by what you get from a company or its PR agent, say so. If you use facts or quotes from a company, politician, PR agent, or press release, say so (better yet, link to it). If you get anything from a PR agent — things, business meetings, social events — say so. Your public has a right to know where your information comes from so they can judge it accordingly.

And then you know what? You will be way ahead of the press.

Via emailed tip from Manson, who apparently reads more things about Wal-Mart than I do. Since he gets paid to, and all that.

Update 6: Manson, along with Cam Edwards and Jim Geraghty, comment on the piece at On Tap. Ironically, Manson did not email me about it.

Meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds points to a discussion on the topic at Slashdot. Not much interesting at the latter but I found the comment, “Porn coders could solve cancer if the money was there” quite amusing if somewhat atopical.

Update 7: TimesWatch catches Barbaro doing exactly what he accuses bloggers of doing: “The anti-Wal-Mart side is active as well on the web, and have provided tips leading to at least one story in the Times, a February 17 piece co-written by Barbaro on comments by Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. lifted off an in-house Wal-Mart website.”

Update 8: Richard Edelman himself responds.

We encourage all our clients to reach out to the blogosphere. It should be part of any smart communications program. We also encourage our clients to blog themselves. Blogs are often a more effective way for companies to have a conversation with their audiences that is dynamic, personalized, two way and prominently displayed in search. Of course we give information to bloggers, just as PR people for generations have done with print media, and I’m a little surprised that the print and broadcast media are surprised.

Bloggers can take care of themselves in this evolving world. They should be careful to disclose receipt of product samples, membership on advisory boards or any other financial consideration that might affect their impartiality. They, just like journalists, do not need to disclose their sources, but they should attribute specific content to a company or another blogger if used verbatim.

Dan Gilmore (who I met at last evening’s Army of Davids debate) dislikes Wal-Mart but questions the basic premise of Barbaro’s piece.

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?

PR pro Ryan McGrath rounds up yet more reactions in his mission “To find and link all things related to public relations.”

Update 9 (3/8): Howie Kurtz weighs in. He seems to agree that there’s not much to this story. My response here.

Update 10: Ace admits,

In the spirit of disclosure, Marshall was nice enough to buy me several Miller Lights and one rum & diet coke at CPAC a few weeks ago (as he bought for most bloggers on Blogger Row). The topic of Wal-Mart never came up, but I’m sure I’ve been corrupted by that crazy Wal-Mart money. Some subliminal message he sent me compels me to publish something about dirt-cheap snow shovels.

And I don’t care who says something else about this. No more updates!

________
Full disclosure: Manson emailed the NYT story to me at 10:45 last night. It was, however, on Memeorandum which I would have checked five minutes after scanning my inbox.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Rob says:

    I was one of the bloggers who got emails from Manson, but I wasn’t interviewed by the Times. I suppose I could have ignored the whole thing and never disclosed that I had gotten the emails, but I did.

    I just don’t see it as a big deal. As was pointed out, bloggers get emails like this all the time. Manson was a little more formal about it (he asked me if I’d mind if he sent them to me first) than most people are who just start sending the emails.

    And if you look at the emails Manson sent (I posted a PDF with a copy of every email I got from him and sent to him) they’re really nothing but links to news stories from across the country.

    There is hardly anything sinister about a PR person emailing you a link to a news story about their company and saying, essentially, “you might want to blog about this.”

  2. LJD says:

    Was Ken working for WalMArt when he unveiled his brilliant uniform policy for the armed services?

  3. just me says:

    Not sure what the big deal is, as long as a blogger indicates the source (and bloggers are often far more meticulous about this than the MSM) it isn’t a big deal.