Wal-Mart ‘Flogs’ Par for the PR Course

    by Mark Glaser
    October 27, 2006

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    All blogs are not created equal, and many of them are not transparent in their athenticity either. Sometimes we are hoodwinked, we want to believe, but we are deceived by what have become known as “flogs” or fake blogs, bought and paid for by someone else. In the case of our hot topic of the week, it’s Edelman PR creating multiple flogs to tout Wal-Mart, including Wal-Marting Across America wherein our two heroes traipse around the country in a RV in praise of Wal-Mart. Surprise, surprise, their trip was funded by Edelman on behalf of Wal-Mart.

    So I put these questions to you cynical been-there, done-that folks: What do you think about these flogs? Do they hurt the PR industry, or hurt the credibility of blogs, or egads, both? Your responses were varied and had no common theme except that none of you were surprised with the unveiling of the Wal-Mart/Edelman conspiracy to deceive. Or as Ken Leebow said, “The blog world meets the real world. The more things change, they stay the same.” Uh-huh.

    Jim Kukral, who publishes ReveNews about online revenues, believes it hurts both PR and bloggers, and has done something about it — at least for bloggers. He’s created graphical badges, like the one above, for bloggers to pledge that they are not secretly selling the content of their blog. It reads, in part:


    I promise to attempt to disclose or clearly mark any content or advertisements or other monetization attempts that help me keep my blog operating.

    I pledge to never write “fake” blog content solely for the purpose of trying to generate revenue without complete and clear disclosure.

    That’s handy, but I hope people can prove their credibility without having to rely on badges. And who’s going to verify that people keep their pledge?

    Others felt that the incident proved the power of blogs to uncover wrongdoing in their own online community, and will hurt future PR flog efforts.


    “This doesn’t hurt bloggers,” wrote KOB of DCBlogs. “The opposite is more true. It will be exceptionally difficult, I believe, for an under-the-cover, fake PR blog to operate anonymously for long. Whether local blogs or topical, blogging communities share knowledge and build on it. Networking intelligence is exponential. It’s this capability that strips pretenses and grounds them up.”

    Jay Hinman, who blogs at Detailed Twang, concurs with KOB’s view, and sees this as raising the profile of blogging in general:

    I think it’s more telling that blogs’ utility have evolved to the point where Edelman would find creating them useful. I mean, without certain assumptions about an automatic level of traffic (hits), it would make no sense to create these. Sort of like those fake spamlogs; they are making serious AdSense money for their creators. Another light shined on the unstoppable blog trend.”

    PR professional Ged Carroll comes to Edelman’s defense, and says the firm has tried to do the right thing since the controversy came to light. “Where Edelman could have done better was responding faster when the story broke and telling the blogosphere that they were looking into it rather than remaining silent for so long,” he wrote.

    Video blog producer Grayson Hurst Daughters noted that she had written a pro-Wal-Mart editorial that was picked up by a flog in Georgia. She told Edelman to remove the link, and said “they were welcome to put my editorial back on the Georgia Families For Wal-Mart site — once it became ‘more transparent.’” As for taking a look at the dark side of life, she wrote: “It’s good to take a look, while we can, at just what the tarty face of hard-core astroturfing looks like, just so we’ll recognize the expensive trash when we stumble into it again. And we will.”

    Rather than end this excellent compendium of Your Take answers with my own pithy summation, I’ll leave that to commenter Amanda Hirsch, former PBS.org editorial director and fairy godmother of MediaShift:

    I think the good news is that we aren’t doomed to be duped — we just have to accept the responsibility of being critical consumers of news and information. This incident underscores the importance of media literacy — the ability for individual citizens to critically evaluate a source of information, whether it’s a news article or a blog post.

    Too true. What do you think? Are you more aware of the possibility of flogs out there when you stroll the blogosphere? Has your opinion of Wal-Mart or Edelman changed after this incident? Share your opinions in the comments below.

    Tagged: fraud public relations viral marketing walmart weblog
    • Ben

      I don’t think the Wal-Mart Flog, or any other advert blog, speaks badly of the greater blogging community. Human nature, or at least most human nature, is to move towards the limelight, not away. If a large corporation were to pay (er, sponsor) me to travel the country and periodically praise their services and/or products I wouldn’t be too ashamed to seriously consider the offer.

      The blogosphere gives us a pretty accurate reflection of what we think we know about people in general; that doesn’t mean the Wal-Mart bloggers have “ruined” the altruistic nature of the blogosphere. It only shows us that people are still as susceptible to shilling for corporate America as they always have been and blogs don’t require the “moral superiority” that too many in the blogosphere think they possess. If my readers can’t figure out from reading my blog that I’m speaking for myself or a “sponsoring party” then I don’t need an “Honor Tag” to try and prove it to them. I guess I trust that most consumers of information on the internet are savvy enough to decide for themselves from what perspective the information is being written.

    • Anna Haynes

      re Jim’s “badge text”:
      > “…never write fake blog content solely for the purpose of trying to generate revenue…”

      the “solely” in this sentence bothers me. People are usually able to rationalize themselves into believing their own flackery.

      re Glaser’s
      > “I hope people can prove their credibility without having to rely on badges. And whos going to verify that people keep their pledge?”

      Look at it from a Jakob Nielsen “usability” perspective – what’s the lowest-effort, highest-ROI method for helping your readers to determine whether you’re a PR flack?

      As a reader, I don’t want to be ‘told’ “read my [gazillion post] blog and judge for yourself”, I don’t have the time (and it does come across as hostile to the reader). Instead I want to see your contract with me – your one-page statement of what you do and do not believe to be acceptable blogging behavior.

      If your expressed standards are low or obscure, I know you’re content to be classified with the blog-flack contingent, and will discount your writings accordingly.

      True, if your expressed standards are high, I still don’t know if you’re for real or a perjurer; but in choosing the latter course you’d risk making yourself – and your corporate clients – look very bad indeed.

      It’s not rocket science; it’s just another form of swearing an oath, screening out the honest flacks. And perhaps it also serves as a helpful reminder…

    • Hey Mark, great post. I think you’re right – it’s a shame we even have to think about things like this as both bloggers and marketers, but the truth is i suppose that there are an awful lot of people out there in this industry who still want to use their tried and trusted methods (or so they think) with whatever new format comes along.

    • As a PR professional for over 25 years the answer is simple.

      There is never an excuse for obscuring a client relationship — not with an editor, not with a broadcast producer and certainly not to defraud the public.

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