The Agony, Comeupance, and Learning Experience of Social Media Rage

Note: To outside visitors. This is long. Way too long. What you will find below are essentially thoughts I have jotted down each day since learning of the story. I’m putting it here for my students. Tired of sitting on it, I’m just going to post as is. If you read it, pack a lunch.
Danger, Will Robinson.


This post began the day I learned of the Edelman blog controversy. My thought, after I added each paragraph, was to discuss this in class and then post about it only when there was more information available. Certainly, there were impulses to hit “Publish” and I fought against them.

Why? There is so much pettiness and piling on in the world of blogs. So often we hear “Kill the umpire!” or “Throw the bum out!” I just sit back with a perplexed feeling. I feel like I’m often watching children fighting. I prefer to learn from mistakes… mine, and the mistakes of others. And, most important, I did not know the details. I still don’t know all of them, but I sure know more than I would have a week ago.Also, social media is so new. I’m not surprised that something like this happened. In fact, I believe it is happening elsewhere – in many other firms and via independent practitioners and consultants. Anyone that doesn’t think that’s happening is, I believe, fooling themselves.

Besides, I have already posted my suggestions as to what Edelman should do given their controversy re: blogs, Wal-Mart and transparency. Thing is, I posted that on March 13th, 2006. That was the first Edelman / Wal-Mart snafu. I didn’t expect them to do all of those things, way back when. I still don’t expect them to do all of them today.

Today, I choose to address the recent posts of Richard Edelman.

Transparency

Richard Edelman has recently made these statements and asked for feedback.

I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.

Good. He took responsibility for the lack of transparency in that instance. Bad. He did not take responsibility for the further glaring omissions regarding past posts on Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFWM) and Paid Critics and the indentity of those posters. Missed opportunity. Point to your errors before someone else does.

Paid Critics

(Written last night, some of this has already been fixed. Look for notes below.) Yesterday, I went to Paid Critics and – on the front page, and on the individual posts – there were attributions to the October 2006 posts. They are gone from the front page today. There were no indications of attribution – on the archive listing pages, either, for any of the June through September 2006 posts. They do exist on the individual posts (permalinks). They still do not exist on the archive listing pages. This is all despite a post on Thursday, October 19, 2006, 1:11 PM. Yes, I cleared my cache and emptied my history. Despite heavy index finger mouse clicking, the attributions are no longer there.

Their post:

A change to paidcritics.com

In response to comments and emails, we’ve added author bylines to blog posts here at paidcritics.com. The site has been updated, but readers may have to refresh the page for the new information.

First, see the note at the end of this section. Some may think I’m splitting hairs. Maybe so, but why were attributions fine for the front page one day and now they do not appear? And, I think we all know that the click-through rate on those visiting front pages is quite often low. I do not believe this practice does the Edelman/Wal-Mart cause any good. Put the post attributions back up and put them on all the present and past post archive pages, too. This is not, by the way, a difficult process. Even I can do this kind of code edit.

At the Working Families for Wal-Mart site, there are attributions to the existing posts. But, what about the old ones? I can’t find any in Google caches, but we all know they have been up there. So, where are the archives and – if you post them – will they have attributions applied?

A suggestion I’ll offer is, on the the Working Families for Wal-Mart Steering Commmittee Members bios, place contact information. If only an email to baird@forwalmart.com – for example – which redirects to the member’s mailbox, this will provide a bit more transparency. People may actually contact them and not have to do research – off site – to find their information. I don’t believe the contact page with this email – “info@forwalmart.com … Or call 866-380-WFWM” – is sufficient. I don’t believe this will happen, but it would be transparent. You see, I’m thinking the question here will be how much transparency may we realistically expect to see. That will, I believe, always be the issue as this infant of a tactic/strategy – social media – in PR/marketing develops. Old dogs don’t like new tricks.

Now, I will add this. As I’m writing this post, the Working Families for Wal-Mart site was accessible. Now, however, it has a “Please check back!” page as it appears they are working on all of the sites. So, we’ll see what they look like tomorrow. Note: It just came back up for a bit, attribution is back on the front page, but still not on the archive listing pages.

Is it really any wonder that some say the moniker of “Paid Critics” can be used for all involved here? No.

WOMMA

Next point offered by Richard Edelman:

Let me reiterate our support for the WOMMA guidelines on transparency, which we helped to write. Our commitment is to openness and engagement because trust is not negotiable and we are working to be sure that commitment is delivered in all our programs.

Well, trust may not be negotiable, but it seems seats on the governing WOMMA board are negotiable. To the tune of $10,000, as a matter of fact.

If any $10K buy-ins are sitting on some committee with the word “ethics” in the title, please either (a) change your policy and allow anyone to serve (regardless of checkbooks), or (b) throw the $10K members off – today. Then, list all of the committees and who serves on each committee. Finally, list the WOMMA Leadership – and all members – according to their status as defined by the “Membership Types” listed on the WOMMA application.

You can try to explain it away all sorts of ways, but you are selling influence. Plain and simple. I think anyone would read that into these statements from the application. “$10,000 Annual Dues” gets you:

  • Seat on the Leadership Committee
  • First choice of committee chairs (over standard members)

That’s what it says. Oh, I know this is hardly new. I’m sure this is practiced, even under the table, in lots of organizations. But, WOMMA is on the hotseat, too, now. Save your credibility. It is quite damaged.

How else will WOMMA live up to their stated “values“?

We believe in honesty and transparency at all times.

  • Honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity
  • Respecting the rules of the forum
  • Rising above the minimum requirements in privacy and permission (emphasis mine)

Firm Wide Fixes

Finally, Richard Edelman offers these ongoing actions aimed at fixing the problems.

We are undertaking a thorough audit around the world to ensure we apply best practice guidelines to every program in every market and specialty area.

  • We are requiring that all employees attend an Edelman University class on ethics in social media, hosted by members of me2revolution team as well as external experts. This will take place before the end of next week.
  • We are establishing a 24/7 hotline so our me2revolution team can review, provide counsel and apply best practice guidelines on social media programs before their implementation. This ensures that programs adhere to the WOMMA guidelines or best-in-class standards around the world.
  • We are creating ethics materials that will be distributed to each office and all new hires.

This is just the beginning. We recognize we have further to go. You can and should be helping us. I appreciate all the invaluable feedback you have provided during this week–and we have taken action on at least of one of your comments. If there (sic) any other actions that you would advise us to consider, I would welcome them.

These are all good. I’m curious about the “hotline” and wonder who will be answering the phone. Make all the fixes ongoing and write about them – often. Get those people to blog, too. Or, interview them and post those interviews. Finally, if you’re really going to take this transparency all the way, offer them up for interviews.

Talk about the buy in you have within the firm, please. I think it would be realistic to believe that perhaps 10% of the firm is actively engaged. That number is actually probably high. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if 50%+ is not even interested. Social media is still new and many people still scoff at the idea. In the myopic world of PR blogs, we forget that the vast majority of the world (let alone our industry) have not bought into the idea.

Other Suggestions

I am aware of other suggestions that have been emailed to people within Edelman. I won’t reveal those, but will offer a few of my own. No, none of my former students have spoken to me about this. Period.

Continue to write and speak about these issues through your blogs and podcasts.

Do video podcasts. That’s not something you do now, and it will add to the message. People want to see and hear all of the leadership within Edelman on these issues.

If you want to be bold, go deeper and explain relationships that exist in the co-operation of these sites. For instance, what role does Grassroots Enterprise play in the WFWM site? What, if any, third-party relationships played a role in these problems you’ve experienced?

You are the leaders – still. Don’t let anyone try and take that away from you. Be aggressive and take the social media theme to greater heights.

Other Thoughts From The Past Weeks

As you might imagine, we’ve been talking about this in and out of classes. There are many important issues here, to be sure. There are also other issues that act to cloud what we should really be talking about.

The RV blog outcry was a bit over the top.

We could just end this part of the post with one sentence. “Did you see the blog?”

I mean, really. This wasn’t a major “lie to the world, change public opinion” scandal of a blog. It was possibly read by how many people … 20? Certainly, that doesn’t make it excusable. Still, did you look at the cached pages? Please. It was RVs and Wal-Mart. The content wasn’t scandalous. And, by the way, we see RVs at Wal-Mart all the time. When I first heard of their policy, a long time ago, I thought – great idea. The parking lots are usually 50% empty (they are huge), so why not let people with big wallets park free overnight. If they can afford an RV, they’ll probably spend a lot in Wal-Mart in the morning.

Certainly, the blog’s authors and ties to Wal-Mart and Working Families for Wal-Mart and Edelman should have been disclosed. The tie to WFFW was disclosed. For people in the industry, we knew that also meant that Edelman was involved in some way. However, the overall audience did not.

Now, some other thoughts about Working Families for Wal-Mart and Paid Critics. These, by the way, were written days ago – along with much of that offered above. I’m just including them with a few updates where appropriate. Remember, this is primarily for my students.

Other Issues We Have Discussed

There seem to be two major issues in this story that may be addressed, if only in part. There is still more to learn. First, there is the best practices / principles aspect. Second, there is the management, or oversight of projects, aspect.

On the first, best practices, we know the answer. It was wrong to not disclose the identity of the bloggers in the RV blog. But, it is also wrong to not reveal the identities of those posting in the other blogs and the relationships within WOMMA leadership. Also, let us not forget the Washington Post photographer in the RV blog. He was even violating his own employer’s guidelines on freelance work and accepting remuneration. See, it wasn’t just Edelman Worldwide at work here. There is plenty of bad practice going around.

An aside, is an unmarried couple RV-ing across the US one of Wal-Mart’s family values? Well, for the old-school Wal-Mart crowd, I’m thinking – not. But, for the new Wal-Mart, I guess it is.

As for the second issue, they failed here, too. But, we are seeing the results of improved oversight now, I believe. Just look above at Richard Edelman’s statements. Don’t you just know they’re going over everything with a fine tooth comb. I found them working on the sites just this evening. I hope they are going through every post in every site. In fact, I’ll bet ya’ a dollar – they are. You know plenty of other people are, after all. Edelman cannot afford another revelation.

Too Slow To Respond?

It took the public blogging faces of Edelman PR – Richard Edelman and Steve Rubel, among others – a little while to get the details from those responsible for the flaws in the campaign. Many bloggers seemed to think that they should all be able to jump in and answer questions on a moment’s notice. I, for one, try to remember how an organization of 2,000+ people isn’t always that easy to weed through to find out all the facts. Think herding cats. Some of those cats may have been scared to death, too. Some were probably hiding under the bed. Now, they are likely as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

The point is, we all knew they’d speak up eventually. No pun intended.

Richard Edelman has done the right thing. He’s taken responsibility for all of this. He wrote:

I take responsibility for this work product though I was not personally involved. As CEO it is my job to be sure that we have best practices and commitment to education of our work force. Be sure that it is highest on my priority list so this does not happen again. Thanks for writing. (Source – October 18, 2006 3:30 PM)

A suggestion? Either bookmark the sites and blogs in your browser, or put the RSS feeds of those sites/blogs in a reader and check them every morning, evening and night for quite awhile.

OK, about the delay in responding in blog world. Yes, in a crisis management situation, expediency is important. It is actually crucial. Still, you can’t respond if you don’t know the details.

Some have said that people within Edelman should have at least posted something saying, “Hey, I’m aware and we’re looking into it.” That would have been good and would have likely tempered some of the rants. I don’t think it is required, but would have helped. So, another missed opportunity.

Whatever you may say about Edelman the man, or the company, the man and the firm are the leaders in large firm social media and PR. And, that may not be solely the result of all their work and clients. They do have (or had) the largest and most sought after clients – Wal-Mart, Microsoft and MySpace – among others, after all. Just look at the comments on the Edelman blogs. It is a given, if only by perception. They are certainly doing that part right – promoting their business. The outrage, to me, proves that Edelman’s leadership is the perception of the PR blogging crowd. A very slim sliver of the world’s population, too.

Blame Andrew Young or Catherine Smith

Why not? They are the only ones I haven’t seen pounded in all this Edelman / Wal-Mart RV kafuffle, so far.

…this experience, as painful as it may be, is one of the best learning experiences we all could have hoped for…

I am, of course, kidding. Sort of.

Andrew Young was with Working Families for Wal-Mart. (Follow that first link and you’ll see yet another reason why you shouldn’t trust Wikipedia, by the way.) Young stepped aside awhile back. Well, he may have actually been asked to leave – after this (Source). But, what if he hadn’t left? Would Young have shown greater interest in oversight of the Working Families for Wal-Mart projects? Do they not have any ownership in this story?

Catherine Smith is, after all, National Steering Committee Interim Chair of Working Families for Wal-Mart. She is also “Vice President of Diversity Best Practices, the Business Women’s Network and Best Practices in Corporate Communications.” (Emphasis mine … and Source)

Shouldn’t she also be on the block here? She is responsible for Best Practices in Corporate Communications at a subsidiary of iVillage Inc. Shouldn’t she know better? I realize that Richard Edelman says the campaign was not the idea of Working Families for Wal-Mart or Wal-Mart. But, still. Don’t they watch their own programs? Their name was on it. From the beginning, by the way.

The PR blog world is sometimes over the top.

In blog world, there seems to be this presumption that (a) since blogs exist and (b) players in this story are blogging then (c) they should use their blogs immediately as a sort of confessional booth. Now, add to that, the presumption that it should all happen immediately. I think all of that is crazy. It isn’t realistic. Those that have such expectations are not thinking clearly.

I’m going to stun many of you. I don’t think Steve Rubel should have been attacked the way he was in comments on his blog. There. I said it and I’m not ashamed. It wasn’t his campaign. The people running it do not report to him. He was probably as much in the dark as the rest of us. And, I say all of this with the knowledge that I have written many times about Steve. There are four that come to mind. Now, those criticisms were justified, in my opinion.

I also think that some of the demands aimed at Richard Edelman were a bit goofy. Yes, there are questions left unanswered. But, do you really think posting them in comments (especially the way some were presented) will work for you? Come on.

I have met, and like, Edelman PR

Well, not the whole company. But … Another reason why I do not see much reason for all of this dust up is, I recently met Rick Murray. He is the president of the me2revolution. Rick kindly volunteered to visit Auburn University and speak with my students. Think about this for a minute. He came on his own dime. The man spent two days allowing us to drag him around campus talking to classes, student groups and faculty. That’s just the nice part. Now, for the content. Rick opened the doors to some online tools within Edelman and offered them to the students before anyone else sees them. Cool tools, too. Probably shouldn’t have written that, but there it is. He also gave the students some small peeks inside the company. Further, he was very open in his presentations. I’m not suggesting that my students drilled him relentlessly. They didn’t. I wish they had. I think Rick wished they had.

This was a surreal experience for my students, too. Think about it. One day after Rick left, this story broke. I, however, did not learn of it until Sunday night, as I was tied up with family and other issues.

Seriously, these are the impressions I came away with after the two day visit. This is an open and honest man. I even got a chance to speak with Richard Edelman on Monday just after he had finished the day in London presenting all of their survey results on blogging in Europe. The man called Rick from a taxicab in London – at about 11:00 p.m. there – and Rick passed the phone to me just before he went in to speak with my 5:00 p.m. class. I’ll admit that was pretty cool. It was nice. Believe me, the fact that I’m in Auburn, Alabama is not lost on me. Still, these guys are willing to chat with us and seem to truly care about helping the students. How can you not be impressed by that.

Everytime I’ve spoken or corresponded with anyone from Edelman, yes – even Steve Rubel (after all those posts), they have always been kind, professional and willing to answer questions. What can I say. Those are my experiences and I’m not going to apologize for them.

In fact, Rick Murray has agreed to serve on our PR Advisory Council. The council advises the department on curriculum and breaking trends in public relations. I am proud to say that Rick agreed to join us. And, I believe that this post – or others – will not have an impact on those promises. In fact, I think he expects them.

Now, you may well say, “Robert, you’re just starstruck.” Or, you might think, “Robert’s just playing a suck up game. He wants good things for his students.” Well, to those things, all I can say is, “You don’t know me. That is obvious.”

I’ve met a lot of stars and prominent people in my life. I generally do not get stunned by them. In fact, the only person I can really remember being stunned while meeting is Ken Mattingly. He’s an Auburn graduate and the legendary pilot removed from the Apollo 13 mission. Mattingly truly had me stunned. He flew on Apollo 16 and even flew the space shuttle – twice. You know why he stunned me? The man has been to the Moon. Yet, he was the nicest man you’ll meet. Unassuming and so friendly. Not an ounce of arrogance present. I digress, but you’ll hopefully understand. I don’t really get starstruck.

And, remember those posts above and remember that Rick Murray of Edelman PR came to Auburn, anyway. I know people in Edelman are aware of those posts. So, I can only conclude that they are open to criticism and do not run away from it.

Perhaps I’m biased. I do not think I am, but – if you feel so, please feel free to vent in comments. Just keep it sane and polite, please.

Conclusions

Here is what I think will happen in all of this. We will see Edelman re-double their efforts. Down the road, I think we will see them talking more about what they are doing and how they are doing it. All of this is still so new. Patience. Adherence to transparency and open communication will evolve into a given, over time.

Are they embarrassed by all this rumbling? I’m sure they are. Should they be? Of course. The errors (whatever you want to call them) were bad. They touched the core of transparency and open communication. I do not, however, think these incidences define the company or the people. As difficult and embarrassing as this experience may be, we should thank Edelman. They are, still, the most public, and largest group of, practitioners of social media by large PR firms. Oh, sure – others may be doing more work. They may even be doing it better. But, I don’t see those firms taking the public stage like Edelman has over the past year. Ask yourself, what are these other large firms doing? You know, WS, HK, FH and other firms…. what are they doing? I’ve learned a bit from things like the PR Week Awards program. Still, I don’t know much about their clients and social media work. I don’t see them talking about it to the degree that Edelman is talking about it. And, before you suggest it … I have been looking.

Finally, writing this kind of post – you know, the ones where you say, “I met this guy.” or “Hey, I talked with this guy.” – are the kind of thing I loathe doing. However, in this instance, I think it is worthwhile. The experiences have shaped my views – and those of my students – regarding Edelman PR. After all, I’ve always believed that face-to-face is much better than blogging. It worked here. I will not be surprised if some say I’ve been too easy on these lapses by Edelman. There will be others that may say I’ve been too hard on them – and made unrealistic expectations of what they will (or can) reveal. If both of those prove to be the case, I probably did OK.

Perspective

This is quite the tempest in a teapot, to some degree. Yes, there have been BusinessWeek and MediaPost articles. But, really – for the world at large – this is a non-story. Most people haven’t heard of it and others will say, so what. It is PR. I’m not surprised. So, perhaps that is the real problem we should be addressing. Certainly, not having this happen would have helped. But, fixing it – in the open – may ultimately be part of the medicine we need.

That’s my take. Have at it. I think I’ve been completely open and transparent in my post.

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0 thoughts on “The Agony, Comeupance, and Learning Experience of Social Media Rage

  1. Pingback: FPRAblog - home of FPRA Blog Week 2006

  2. Eric Eggertson

    Robert:

    I’ve taken a few shots at different people and companies, so I don’t think of myself as the Mother (Father?) Theresa of PR bloggers. But I think you and Shel Holtz are right that somewhere along the way things went over the top in the incessant criticism.

    I got a personal e-mail from Richard Edelman after I commented on his original post, (which was a nice gesture). In my reply I suggested his firm needed to do more in the way of acknowledging what had taken place, if it turned out there was more than just a small slip-up in attribution. I also said:

    “This is a new model of communications, and those who try new things are either going to get roasted, or praised for being pioneers, or both.”

    I am glad to see Edelman restate their commitment to pursuing opportunities in social media, instead of retreating into a shell of inaction.

  3. Pingback: hyku | blog - Josh Hallett

  4. Fard Johnmar

    Robert:

    Nice, balanced, honest post. I haven’t written about this issue. I did write about a similar incident back in March or April. I think that it’s good that Edelman is trying to make changes and I like the fact that Richard Edelman is personally talking about this issue, commenting on others’ blogs and changing things at his company. In business, that’s tough to do and I’m happy that they are taking steps to change things.

    Once again thanks for waiting to post and for being so clear headed about everything.

  5. Pingback: Forward Blog » Blog Archive » A Beginner’s Guide to the Edelman/Wal-Mart Scandal

  6. Robert

    Eric: Thank you. I, too, am no stalwart of blog wisdom or purity. In this case, I just see it a bit out of balance. Two things helped drive much of this outrage, in my opinion. (1) The reality that Wal-Mart and Edelman were involved. (2) The resentment, or whatever you want to call it, for both. Certainly there were sincere and justified concerns for the best practice issues, the most important point of all, but I’m afraid some of that was overwhelmed by the rest.

    Fard: I think Edelman’s personal visits to the blogs of others is a great example of blog relations. I’m pleased that they are tracking and responding. I wish more of the principles in this campaign with Wal-Mart would do the same. I also understand why they may not.

    We’ll just have to watch and see if all this may be worked out to the benefit of all involved.

  7. Chris Brown

    Although your blog is quite long, I appreciate how you broke this down into so many different points. As a marcom professional who also blogs, I too am concerned with pointing fingers and the witch hunt.

    One wrinkle in the situation that you didn’t bring up, was the article from the New York Times writer Eric Pfanner about Edelman and Technorati’s new blog watching service for PR to watch and measure the results of blogging for their clients.

    I found the timing of that article extremely ironic. It was published the same day as Edelman’s apology. Eric added a correction later to his article, but still never mentioned the controversy. My long version and opinion is on my blog today. I’d be interested in your opinion.

    Chris Brown
    brandandmarket.blogspot.com

  8. Robert

    Thanks, Chris. I read your post and commented. It was an interesting timing for all of that to happen.

    Richard Bailey has posted an analysis of the situation in Forward Blog.

    His assertion that so much of what PR does is opaque, really does hit the mark. A big reason, beyond this just being Wal-mart and Edelman, the controversy was so loud in blog land is that this is a PR function in a medium that claimed transparency as gospel – at the outset.

    Still, I truly doubt that there are any universals applied to any medium. Certainly there is a great deal of splogging, flogging and much more at work out there. Much of it will never be discovered.