You Say You Want A Revolution

Today's "Outside Voices" by Edelman PR man and blogger Steve Rubel wasn't solicited for convenient timing but in many ways it couldn't have worked out any better. The nexus of public relations and the blogosphere popped up as much-discussed issue this week, thanks primarily to a New York Times article. It's a discussion worth paying attention to.

The Times' article by Michael Barbaro examined the extent to which PR companies are reaching out to bloggers to spread their client's messages. The story singled out Edelman's (pure coincidence I swear) work on behalf of Wal-Mart, including an aggressive blog-outreach effort. Here's the nut of the story:

Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.

But the strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, has been forthright with bloggers about the origins of its communications, and the company and its public relations firm, Edelman, say they do not compensate the bloggers.

Leaving the ideological battle over Wal-Mart aside, the real question raised by Barbaros' story is whether or not bloggers can, in the end, be trusted? This, of course, was certain to offend a great many in the blogosphere. Basically, the theme of the story is this: Wal-Mart and its PR firm, Edelman, communicate with bloggers, send them news, topics, selective factoids and talking points. They even go so far as to suggest bloggers re-write what they've received so as not to parrot the actual words of the company if they're used. The veiled implication is that bloggers who write positively about Wal-Mart should be viewed with suspicion because it just may be the voice of the company speaking instead of the writer. By extension, what's to prevent the corruption of the entire blogosphere by similar tactics?

That may be overstating the tone of the article to a great extent, but let's not fool ourselves about the overall theme of trust. That's certainly how many bloggers saw it. Mike Krempasky, Red State founder, blogger and also an Edelman VP was quoted in the article. He also blogged some thoughts about the debate spurred by it:

The thing I find most interesting looking back at this reaction is that several folks that work in public relations are shouting quite loudly something along the lines of
  • "Encourage bloggers to print that they've been contacted by a public relations professional!"
  • "Just saying you're from a PR firm working on behalf of a specific and named client ISN'T ENOUGH. You must disclose more, more, more" (ed note: huh?)
  • "Bloggers must disclose"
  • etc.

    Sounds great. Can't wait to see the following:

  • Traditional news publications and outlets launching websites to document all the "background conversations" they have with sources with a perspective or agenda.
  • Same traditional news publications and outlets posting telephone logs involving stories they print.
  • PR firms posting times, dates, locations, even transcripts of ed board meetings or salon dinners.

    Any other suggestions to make some of the criticism take on a logical and parallel life in relationships with traditional media?

  • Krempasky hits well on one of the bigger complaints among bloggers to this line of thought – what makes the mainstream press any different? Their stories are, and have long been, filled with facts, spin and press release material no different from what bloggers are being given. Sometimes entire stories may be based on a press release. Here's what BuzzMachine's Jeff Jarvis said about the flap:
    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 [many] 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).

    Jarvis also sees a simple solution to the problem for angry bloggers:
    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 Krempasky and Jarvis make great points, when public relations meet news, it's often a shadowy confluence and disclosure is the best way to shine light upon it. Moreover, such disclosure would put bloggers "way ahead" of the press. But there is a larger picture here that ought not be ignored.

    Like political candidates and parties, the PR world is clearly viewing the emerging landscape as a quite friendly one in which to do business. Increasingly the blogosphere is offering politicians, operatives, interest groups and parties a valuable way to bypass the traditional filter of the press. (To what extent said filter has acted more like a sieve is a topic for another time).

    Sure, a press secretary or communications director might succeed in getting their boss' message across in a given newspaper article or TV story a good deal of the time. Real good spin doctors might even get entire stories slanted their way. A well-timed leak can do wonders for your press coverage, and so on. But on the whole, the press is going to be a negative for your cause as much as a positive. The same holds true overall for public relations – rarely will they succeed in everything they try to push.

    Enter vehicles like talk radio, e-mail communications and, of course, blogs. These tools allow for direct communication with individuals who have two very desirable attributes – they are sympathetic to a given point of view and posses the ability to spread the message to a mass audience. No longer is "broadcast" really reserved for network news shows. As the Times' story points out well, Wal-Mart communicates with those already predisposed to their message – it's an injection directly into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body politic.

    In a less-noticed New York Observer article this week, Edelman C.E.O. Richard Edelman talked about how the decline of trust in the MSM has combined with the power of blogosphere has empowered his industry:

    "In a world where we don't have a belief in a single source, you don't have a Walter Cronkite anymore. P.R. is the discipline on the rise," said Richard W. Edelman, president and chief executive of the public-relations firm Edelman.

    "P.R.," he said, "plays much better in a world that lacks trust."

    "It used to be I would schmooze you and I was your flack," said Mr. Edelman, whose firm netted about $260 million in 2005. "Today, if we want to get a message into the public's conversation, we just make a post on a blog. If The Wall Street Journal goes after a client, we don't have to accept that anymore. Let's post the documents we gave The Journal; let's show the interviews the newspaper decided not to show.

    "You're not God anymore," he said.

    While it certainly isn't a perfect system by any means, serious journalism should be the crucible where competing interests, visions and ideology are tested against each other and all available evidence in an attempt to provide an accurate picture of reality – or at least a common framework for the conversation. It seems to me that model is under assault like never before, something that may overall be positive or negative. My question is, what are we replacing it with?