The New York Times this morning reports on Walmart’s PR strategy with blogs, executed via the Edelman PR firm.
First, I suggest you read the story and substitute the name of your local newspaper for any reference to bloggers. Remember that PR companies have been reaching out to reporters since they were born; that is why their industry exists. Today we have search-engine optimization companies; back then, we had press optimization companies.
Remember that reporters do not tell you every story idea that came from a flack — and so stories do start with PR pitches that I’ve often said if I ran a paper, I’d have flack-free days: Every story in today’s paper came from actual reporting! (It’d probably be a thin Saturday.)
Reporters may be smart enough to rewrite the verbiage in press releases (unlike the hapless blogger in the Times story caught quoting Walmart’s flackery without attribution — a practice Edelman, smartly, warned them against). But they don’t tell you all the and facts and viewpoints they use from flacks.
Reporters do not tell you about the meetings, lunches, drinks, and help given them by flacks.
There is no scandal in the Times story. And in fairness, the Times doesn’t directly present it as a scandal. It points out how Edelman is transparent about its activities and even advises bloggers to be open. No, The Times is merely reporting how PR works. Only the object of this PR is the public, not the press. And some of these people, these bloggers, aren’t as slick as reporters in knowing how to deal with this.
So my first reponse is to help bloggers with advice:
If you write a post inspired by what you get from a company or its PR agent, say so. If you use facts or quotes from a company, politician, PR agent, or press release, say so (better yet, link to it). If you get anything from a PR agent — things, business meetings, social events — say so. Your public has a right to know where your information comes from so they can judge it accordingly.
And then you know what? You will be way ahead of the press.
I think some newspaper ombudsmen should do PR audits of their papers. How many stories come from flacks without disclosure? How much of the substance of stories comes from flacks without disclosure? How many benefits accrue from flacks and companies without disclosure?
Yes, take this New York Times article about Walmart and its flacks and turn it on any newspaper and any PR client and then you have a real story.
(Full disclosures: I consult for The New York Times Company at About.com. I had breakfast with Edelman execs — I had one mediocre pastry and one cup of coffee — but have not been hired by them. And I hate shopping at Walmart but don’t think they’re evil.)