Edelman: Must try harder

As you might or might not know, I’ve got a relationship with Edelman, the PR company. I know Richard Edelman, I’ve spoken to their clients about blogging, had meetings with them, and spoken at two of their events. I have also worked closely with Jackie Cooper PR, their sister company, providing training and consultancy.

So I’m pretty embroiled with Edelman, and that makes me even more disappointed to be using the ‘Blog Fuckwittery’ category on this post, but it can’t be helped, I’m afraid.

If you’re into the whole PR thing, then you’ll likely have noticed recently that Edelman have got themselves into a bit of a pinch by helping create a fake blog for Wal-Mart. Called ‘Wal-Marting Across America‘, it purported to be a blog by a couple who decided to go on a cheap holiday in an RV (that’s camper van to us Brits), staying in Wal-Mart car parks overnight. What the blog failed to mention was that the project was a publicity stunt and that Wal-Mart were paying for their petrol, food, and the RV. This trick is known in the trade as ‘astroturfing’ (i.e. faking grassroots). Another way of describing it is ‘lying by omission’, and we all know lying is bad.

I’m not going to go into detail here about what was wrong with this specific project because lots of other people have done that, and I don’t much feel like parroting them. (For balance, I include the frankly lame responses from Richard and Steve.) But I do want to discuss a creeping disquiet I’ve felt lately that this serves only to reinforce.

Now, I like Richard Edelman – he seems to be a nice guy, quite savvy, and genuinely interested in the blogosphere, but the problem here is not just that Richard and his team were not transparent, it’s more fundamental than that. It’s that they are still thinking in old media terms: This was a typical ‘broadcast media’ stunt, an attempt to change the way people think about Wal-Mart by playing up the warm fuzzy angles and neglecting to mention that the whole thing was set up from the start. That is such an old-school way of thinking and it reveals just how much of the bloggers’ ethos has percolated through to the heart of what Edelman do, i.e. ‘not a lot’.

The other week, Kevin and I were invited by Richard and his team to attend a briefing that they, with Technorati, were giving their clients about the European blogosphere. Kevin was on the panel and I was asked by Richard just before the event if I could stand up and say something about the difference between US and UK top ten bloggers. I didn’t really blog it, bar a quick mention on Chocolate and Vodka, because I ended up feeling a little bit uncomfortable with some of the basic premises on show, such as ‘the A-list are important’.

There were a lot of other bloggers there, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it, because it was a little too much like they were there for show. For a long time I’ve felt that Richard is indulging in the zooification of bloggers – collecting and displaying them the way that rich people used to do with exotic animals. I worry that this makes him feel that he’s got a better understanding of the phenomenon than he actually has.

Surrounding myself with Chinese speakers does not instantaneously make me a fluent Chinese speaker. Yes, having access to Chinese speakers can help me learn Chinese better and faster, but only if I actually bother to speak Chinese to them. Surrounding yourself with bloggers is a pointless tactic if you don’t talk about blogs with them, if you don’t actually put some effort into learning what all this stuff means. You can’t pick it up by osmosis.

And this Wal-Mart debacle shows that Edelman still have a long way to go before they genuinely understand blogging. There are a lot of values and ethics they have yet to instil in all their staff at an instinctive level – Wal-Marting Across America should have been simply impossible to conceive, one of the ideas that they never had because it runs so counter to blogging culture. The fact that it wasn’t shows that too many people at Edelman think the old school way, about control and being on-message and spin. This is not the blogger way.

Kevin frequently talks about how he sees big media trying to adapt blogs to their business model instead of adapting their business to blogs, and Edelman are making exactly the same mistake – trying to use blogs for PR, instead of trying to adapt PR to blogs. Having a blog isn’t a magic bullet, it doesn’t fix anything. The magic comes from transparency, openness, honesty and engagement. As Kevin says, that’s the cluetrain, this is just clue-fucked.

Now, a few days after the furore, Richard has outlined the steps Edelman are taking to remedy the situation within Edelman. I have a few thoughts about his ideas, in order:

1. ‘Best practice’ is not something you get by put down rules into a document, or creating a set of processes you make people follow. It’s achieved by ensuring your staff have a deep understanding of what blogging is and how blogging culture works.

2. A single class on ethics in social media will not solve your problem – it will barely scratch the surface. I spent six months this year with employees from JCPR, giving them as thorough an insight into blogging as possible by introducing them to all the surrounding technologies and communities, and by encouraging them to read and write blogs. We spent two hours every fortnight for six months talking about and participating in social media, and you know what? There’s still a lot more they don’t know yet (but we’re working on it!). Blogging is not something you can learn in an afternoon, or a day – it’s as complex and alien to PR people as Chinese culture is complex and alien to me. Do not underestimate the scope of the differences – what’s acceptable in PR circles is far from acceptable in blogging circles and it takes a lot of unpicking to see exactly what’s what.

3. A hotline? That indicates to me that you know your staff haven’t got the requisite clue. But tell me, where are you getting all these lovely guidelines from? I’ve been doing blog consulting for nearly three years, and frankly I’m still learning things. The field is evolving rapidly, and I have yet to come across a nice set of guidelines that encapsulate it all.

4. Who’s writing your ethics materials? Please, God, don’t say WOMMA.

Finally, Richard asks for advice, to which my response is: If you really want to understand blogging properly, stop collecting bloggers to display at your events and start actually learning about the blogosphere. Set up a proper training course for your staff, run by someone who actually knows blogs, and who is not a PR blogger. I am highly sceptical of PR, and that allows me to point out to PR people where what they do is at odds with what bloggers do. If you simply employ PR people who happen to blog, all you’ll get is the same old PR attitudes, but with comments and trackbacks. And we all know that that is not enough.

I do think Edelman are doing better than most, but you are also more vocal than most, and if you’re going to talk the bloggy talk, you damn well better be capable of walking the bloggy walk, otherwise you’re going to look more than a little foolish.

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