Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Blogging Transparency

PR firm Edelman keeps running into blog problems. First there was the flap about the "Wal-Marting Across America" blog, which turned out to have been engineered by Working Families for Wal-Mart, an astroturf group that Edelman cooked up. Then, news broke that Edelman is behind two other blogs:

One blog appears is on the site of Working Families for Wal-Mart, the "astroturf" advocacy group formed by Edelman last December, writes MediaPost. More intriguingly, however, the second fake blog is on WFWM subsidiary site Paid Critics - which is devoted to "exposing" links between unions and other vested interests that are supposedly "smearing Wal-Mart."

Last week, the Wal-Marting Across America blog was shut down after it was revealed to have been written by two writers paid by WFWM. Now the three contributors to the two other Edelman-created blogs are identified on them as Edelman employees whose clients include Working Families for Wal-Mart.

"Doesn't anybody at Edelman see the irony [ed.: perhaps more apt would be "hypocrisy"] behind having their own paid critics writing Wal-Mart's Paid Critics blog?" Sean Carton, chief strategy officer for Baltimore interactive consultancy idfive, is quoted as asking. "It was old media thinking in the new media world, and you can't get away with that [stuff] anymore."

Astroturf groups have always been one of the ethically gray areas (to put it kindly) of public relations. It's interesting, however, to see how the ethics of blogging are developing.

When you're using a medium whose greatest appeal to readers is the personal voice of the author, you don't want to get caught faking it. And the best way to avoid that is not to do it.

I thought about Edelman as I was looking at a job description for a blogger-for-hire to create online presence for a celebrity (and I don't know who the celebrity is). A few highlights:

  • Create one fansite blog and monitor it for only positive posts (with design ideas you will be provided with)
  • Create one fansite Message Board and manage it for only positive posts
  • Constantly have e-mail contact blogs/bloggers
    that have postings already and either encourage them to remove negative photos and place the ones you will have possession of and offer cross-promotion possibilities as reward
  • Contact other organizations that have posted negative photos online and encourage removal and present alternative

This is, I think, someone who just doesn't get it. It's one thing to write a blog saying great things about a celebrity (or a company or a product). But if you're going to invite the public to participate, you need to be ready for the bad as well as the good.

One of the reasons that blogs have become popular is that they are very personal conversations with readers. Conversations where one party is regularly silenced don't tend to go very far.

Certainly, there's content that's approprite to delete: thingse that are pure insults with nothing else to say, obscene comments, that sort of thing. But my belief is that if you err on the side of loose control, your fans - the people passionate enough about your topic to be reading and commenting - will do much of your work for you, responding to the negative comments. And they'll be more convincing than you can be.

Here's a question to ask before you start a business blog: are you ready for blogging? Are you ready for a conversation? If not, you might want to think twice about jumping in.

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