Quinnipiac Assignment 07 – ICM 552 – Wal-Mart and the PR Disaster on Wheels
In 2006, Wal-Mart got into major trouble when the company published a fake blog without divulging its origins or backing. Wal-Mart’s PR company, Edelman, apparently was behind the creation of an entity called Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFWM). In turn, WFWM put together the promo.
On its surface, it seems like a surefire idea. A couple were given an RV and told to drive it across America. But then WFWM rerouted their initial travel plan and their stops became Wal-Mart-centric. Further, WFWM paid all expenses. And what did WFWM get in return for its investment? Glowing reports on the blog, all about the courtesy of the Wal-Mart employees, fun facts about the store, and more positives. WalMarting Across America doesn’t exist anymore, except in the Wayback Machine.
Unfortunately, much of problematic content has been deleted. Here’s a quote from the last post (by “Laura”):
I started thinking about all the other amazing things there are to see in this vast country of ours. And then I started thinking about how Wal-Mart — one in every town, practically — lets you park overnight for free. The idea just sort of came together. We would take vacation from our full-time jobs and drive across the country in a rented RV, from city to city, spending the night in a different Wal-Mart parking lot every night.
And, of course, I’d write an article about it and may be able to sell a story to an RV magazine, with photos, of RVing in America and only staying at Wal-Marts. Given the litigious age we live in, we decided to get permission from Wal-Mart to do so. So I called my brother, who works at Edelman and whose clients include Working Families for Wal-Mart, in order to find out if we’d be allowed to talk to people and take pictures in Wal-Mart parking lots. As a freelance writer, I’ve learned over the years that it’s always better to ask about stuff like that in advance.
They didn’t just give us permission. They said they would even sponsor the trip! A blog seemed the perfect medium to tell those stories — a perfect way to present a diary of my trip. I would post about the trip, not after the fact but from right out there on the road. And even more exciting, no editors! What writer could say no to that?
Why It’s A Problem
Without initially disclosing the connection to Edelman and the sponsorship of the trip, Laura’s blog is suspect on its face. It ends up looking like a glowing puff piece designed to make Wal-Mart look good. Furthermore, without disclosing her background as a freelance writer, but giving the blog a somewhat amateurish look and feel, the implication is that Laura is just some random person who loves Wal-Mart. Instead, she’s a paid spokesperson. Omitting her background or the circumstances under which she was chosen to blog (her professional background, plus her familial connection to Edelman), makes it look as if anyone could have been doing the blogging. The implication is that the praise is genuine. Instead, it’s a marketing ploy and nothing more.
As the Public Relations Society of America(PRSA), Ethical Guidance for Public Relations Practitioners says, “Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.” But neither Laura nor Wal-Mart did so. And as the American Marketing Association, Statement of Ethics says, “Represent products in a clear way in selling, advertising and other forms of communication; this includes the avoidance of false, misleading and deceptive promotion.”
Failing to disclose Laura’s background, the involvement of WFWM and Edelman, and the sponsorship of the trip, was deceptive on its face. Furthermore, Richard Edelman himself was pushing for a PR Code of Ethics in 2005, going so far as to say, “the PR business must embrace transparency on funding sources and motives.” Edelman knew this was wrong. But they went ahead and did it anyway.
How This Could Have Been Avoided
Despite whether Laura was the best blogger for the job, she never should have been hired by WFWM, due to that entity’s intimate association with her brother’s firm, Edelman. From the very beginning, neither Laura nor her husband (the other person WalMarting across America) should have been so much as considered. On its face, there was too strong an implication of impropriety, even if everything had been open and revealed.
If a different blogging duo had been hired, without any nepotistic implications, then the relationship between the bloggers and the PR company still should have been spelled out a lot more clearly. Informing readers that the blog had been written for pay and that Wal-Mart itself was behind it would have gone a long way toward dispelling any whiffs of impropriety. Instead, the categorical imperative to observe duty under all circumstances is not followed, and Wal-Mart and Edelman are left with egg on their proverbial faces. At least they’re organic eggs.