On the eve of the PRSA/Puget Sound event, I met with the organizers for dinner. At our end of the table, a young PR pro led a discussion about the recent Edelman/Wal-Mart blogger "scandal." She thought it was strange that the now infamous Edelman blogger had been doing outreach to the already converted -- a preaching-to-the-choir strategy. Wouldn't it be more effective, she argued, if Edelman/Wal-Mart tried reaching out to the unconverted? I quickly pointed to the elephant in the room. Sticking with the converted has worked very well for Republican political campaigns, given the Democrat's historic struggle to find a single voice (this is the central point in George Lakoff's book, "Don't Think of an Elephant"). So practically speaking, wasn't the blogger's strategy smart if not ethical?
The table sort of agreed, but I later realized why I was wrong and my younger colleague was right: Wal-Mart is not running for president. It is attempting to rehabilitate its image in a medium where there is hyper-transparency. How do you think the unconverted and the "MSM" (the mainstream media) felt reading the blogger's email, posted for everyone to read in The New York Times? I doubt Wal-Mart profited from last week's publicity.
A number of PR people appear to be OK with the Edelman/Wal-Mart team's approach (Shel Holtz is one), and it's because the debate has mostly revolved around whether what the team did was wrong or right. Putting aside ethics, we can still agree that what the team did, in retrospect, was counter-productive. I wouldn't call it a scandal (worse things have happened, and the Edelman agency has a well-deserved reputation for integrity), but I would call it a communications crisis, and it was caused in part by the people who are supposed to handle crisis communications. Lesson learned, I'll bet.
UPDATE: In another story this week (New York Observer), Richard Edelman talks about the shift of power from reporters to bloggers: