The Cycle

Yet more thoughts on Wal-Mart/ Edelman/ New Yorker

As mentioned earlier on this blog, the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg on Edelman’s work with Wal-Mart is a must read. Leaving aside the question of whether it was wise, in a corporate reputation sense, for anyone to give Goldberg the access for this story, it marked just one more embarrassing error for the Wal-Mart-Edelman partnership.

Of course, we all make errors. But what makes one such error contained in the story so noteworthy is the fact that Edelman and its head, Richard Edelman, enjoy such a strong reputation as thought leaders when it comes to transparency and honesty in PR. There are quite a few examples in the story that contradict this reputation, but this one, I think, is the most cutting:

[Greg] St. Claire, who is about forty and is a former Republican congressional staff member, got Wal-Mart in some trouble last year, because of a group called Working Families for Wal-Mart, which advertised itself as a “grass-roots” organization. St. Claire was one of the forces behind Working Families for Wal-Mart, which paid for his sister, Laura St. Claire, to travel across America in a recreational vehicle and keep a blog about visits with Wal-Mart employees. Everyone she talked to was delighted with Wal-Mart. At about the time that the trip came to an end, Business Week revealed that Wal-Mart had financed the journey. When I asked Richard Edelman, the company’s chairman, about this rather blatant example of Astroturfing, he said, of Working Families for Wal-Mart, “I do believe that it is a real group of real people, as far as I know.” Working Families for Wal-Mart is housed in Edelman’s Washington office; its steering-committee members, some of whom have business ties to the company, were recruited by Edelman.

The obvious conclusion to draw from this paragraph is that Edelman is either lying, or completely unaware of his own agency’s most high profile work. Reached by phone on Friday, Edelman said that the quote was in response to a question from Goldberg about work on the Wal-Mart account, and was an attempt “to contextualize my general knowledge of the program.” Edelman said that he was explaining to Goldberg that he didn’t personally work on the Wal-Mart account, but that his understanding was the group was authentic. But Edelman stood by his characterization of the group.

“Working Families for Wal-Mart is not an Astroturfing exercise. It’s a real group. 100,000 people belong to it,” he said.

Asked it the group conforms to the definition of “Astroturf” in the sense that it is funded by Wal-Mart, run by an intermediary, and tries to play down that fact while passing itself off as a grassroots effort, Edelman said, “You’re the reporter, you make the call. I’m telling you there are 100,000 members, I’m telling you they’ve all had positive experiences one way or another as employees or customers. I disagree with that as the classic definition [of Astroturfing].”

He reiterated that he did not work on the Wal-Mart account directly. Asked if he should know the details of the work as the agency’s CEO, Edelman said “I know it’s a real group…you could argue that I should know more, but I don’t.” He added that he had once had dinner with the head of the group.

Edelman also responded to the article on his blog, but neither called that paragraph into contention, nor said his comments were wrong or taken out of context.

He wrote:

I also take exception to the article by Jeff Goldberg in this week’s New Yorker Magazine on Wal-Mart, because it is biased and hopelessly one-sided. His characterization of my former colleague, Leslie Dach, now a senior executive at Wal-Mart, is fundamentally flawed. Leslie is a gifted PR man, with a genuine commitment to the environment and social equality. Goldberg depicts our profession as based on spin, hardball tactics and messages, an Orwellian world of mind control. In fact, the best PR is premised on truth and that is why Wal-Mart’s leadership on environment, prescription drug prices and affordable products is getting favorable coverage.

What’s important is that any description of Working Families for Wal-Mart should acknowledge that it is ultimately a product of Wal-Mart itself, run through intermediaries employed by the company — see here or here. The general public may be jaded enough to simply read Edelman’s “group of real people” quote and nod, “Of course — He’s a flack.” But those within the PR industry who agree with Edelman’s self-proclaimed goals of transparency should look on obfuscations like that in horror. Many were inclined to give Edelman a pass on the fake Wal-Mart blog incident, because the CEO did eventually own up to his mistakes and vow to make changes.

But a group like Working Families for Wal-Mart– a textbook Astroturf operation– is a little harder to gloss over. Creating such groups is a fairly widespread tactic in corporate PR and public affairs work, so there has never been a real condemnation of them within the PR industry. But every time their existence is brought to the attention of the general public, the resulting reaction is one of predictable revulsion.

This is not a political issue; it’s one of simple honesty in communications. Whether the client is Wal-Mart, Greenpeace, or the Republican National Committee, a PR firm-funded and directed group of ostensibly “regular citizens” is just not grassroots, no matter which way you fertilize it.

A PR firm-funded and directed group that prominently declares itself as such is one thing; but of course, a group like that would have no credibility. And while the agency will tell a reporter, upon questioning, that it runs Working Families for Wal-Mart, how about the casual visitor to their website? This is the group’s self-description:

Working Families for Wal-Mart is a group of leaders from a variety of backgrounds and communities all across America. Working Families for Wal-Mart are customers, business leaders, activists, civic leaders, educators, and many others with first-hand knowledge of Wal-Mart’s positive contributions to communities.

This is the type of description that any competent public affairs veteran could whip up in five minutes, and then laugh about later that night at happy hour with colleagues. Maybe Edelman should have declined to speak. Or maybe Edelman and Wal-Mart should reconsider how they communicate.

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