Social Media - do it right or don`t do it at all?

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"Today, there`s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The moment you hide something, you will end up being exposed and picked apart."
Paul Rand, Ketchum PR

Ever heard of the term "astroturfing"? Well, here`s a textbook example: Edelman, one of the biggest PR firms worldwide and self-constituted "pioneer of the web 2.0" decided to work on their client Wal-Mart`s image by founding a "grassroots" organization called "Working Families for Wal-Mart". Then in 2006, they created a nice little blog called "Wal-Mart across America", that featured the story of Laura and Jim, an elderly couple that travelled from Las Vegas to Georgia in an RV, parking for free in Wal-Mart`s parking lots. They didn`t miss out on telling the whole world how happy the Wal-Mart employees seem to be. Everybody just loves to work there. And everybody just loves to shop there! Sounds a bit too good to be true? That`s because it wasn`t.
The travel costs were entirely paid by Working Families for Wal-Mart, which is staffed by Edelman employees. Jim and Laura were on the Edelman payroll as well. A few weeks into the excursion, Business Week outed the blog as being fake. Two other blogs, "Paidcritics" and "For Wal-Mart" were also found to be written by Working Families for Wal-Mart. A storm of protest followed and Edelman was being chastised for misleading the public. Even worse, Edelman refused to admit its guild, saying that the blogs were set up by the organization Working Families for Wal-Mart, not by Edelman itself. Richard Edelman later apologized on his blog, taking full responsibility for the scandal. In fact, Edelman may have ended up suffering more from the mess than Wal-Mart. Fundamental issues of ethics in Social Media have been raised.

But shouldn`t Edelman, out of all PR firms know better? In fact, Richard Edelman has been running around lecturing New Media ground rules for a while now. They helped to write the rulebook for companies tapping into the blogosphere, preaching transparency and "honesty of relationship, opinion and identity". And there they go violating their own rules. This also shows how hypocritical internal code of conducts can be. But the huge loss of credibility that resulted for Edelman, as well as their client Wal-Mart hopefully showed others how to do it right. The Arthur W. Page Society established a set of principles for public relations on the Web:
  • Disclose any affiliations in chatroom postings
  • Offer opportunities for dialogue and interaction with experts
  • Reveal the backround of experts, disclosing any potential conflicts of interest or anonymous economic support of content
  • Practice principled leadership in the digital world, adhering to the highest standard
When it comes to Social Media, it is particularly important to follow those rules. One key characteristic of web 2.0 is that everything is open, transparent and accessible, so it is simply impossible to get away with things like fake blogs. Manipulating social media in ways that alienate users will eventually backfire The future of PR lies in New Media, so professionals should be careful not to ruin its credibility.

Gogoi, Palavi (2006): Wal-Mart`s Jim and Laura: The Real Story. In: Business Week, 9/2006. Read online
Gogoi, Palavi (2006): Wal-Mart vs. the Blogosphere. In: Business Week 10/2006.
Nolan, Hamilton (2006): Edelman acknowledges mistakes in blog matter. PR Week, October 23, 2006, p.3.
Wilcox, Dennis & Glen, Cameron (2009): Public Relations. Strategies and Tactics. Boston: Pearson.

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