Monday, October 23, 2006

Bloggers expose floggers and cloggers

The ethical debate continues on how PR is adapting to the Information Age. And language has become richer as a result.

In the wake of 'flackery' and astroturfing - practices that are themselves roundly condemned by the believers in PR as a form of two-way communication and mutual understanding - we now have to wrestle with the concepts of the 'flog' and the 'clog'.

These are terms that are now bandied around the blogosphere. There's also a lot of talk about 'walmarting'.

It's all to do with trust and authenticity. When you read a blog, can you accept it at face value? If the blogger claims to be a member of the public with no hidden agenda, can you believe him or her? Do you feel duped when you discover that the blog is a 'PR stunt'? And how do you feel about PR in general when this happens?

When a nice, ordinary, folksy couple by the name of Laura and Jim decided to travel across America with their RV (recreational vehicle), spending each night in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and keeping a blog of observations and photographs of the happy Wal-Mart staff that they met on their odyssey, it seemed a jolly interesting thing to do.

But when word got out that the whole trip (including the payment for the RV) was sponsored by Wal-Mart under the direction of their PR consultant Richard Edelman - and that Laura was freelance journalist, Laura St.Clair and that Jim was Washington Post photographer, James Thresher - the ethical debate moved into top gear.

The site, 'Walmarting Across America' has been derided as a 'flog' (fake blog) while other pro-Wal-mart sites, Working Families for Wal-Mart and its offshoot, hitting-back-at-anti-WalMarters site Exposing the Paid Critics are regarded as more blatent forms of 'clogs' (corporate blogs). I've previously commented on Richard Gunstone's Carphone Warehouse blog which also comes under this category.

Here's one typical comment on the Wal-Marting stunt:
Edelman's non-transparency about its Wal-Mart programs erode the trust that makes the Blogosphere valuable. It also forces the question of whether professional PR has any place in the Blogosphere.

Another blogger sees it as a failure to understand the ethos of online communication:
...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'.

Richard Edelman eventually apologised for his misjudgement. Stuart Bruce leapt to his defence with the view that 'hey anyone can make a mistake' although one of Stuart's respondents, Heather Yaxley reflects on the potential damage that this type of practice can have on PR's own image:
The damage to the reputation of PR and the potential lack of confidence of others to engage in online initiatives, must be overcome by seeing this as an opportunity to learn from Edelman's mistakes and ensure PR online is genuinely open and credible.

The whole incident demonstrates clearly how the discourses of blogging and corporate communication reflect very different mindsets. Chris Lake of e-consultancy offers 12 reasons why British businesses don't blog. One is tempted to suggest that there are plenty of reasons why they shouldn't.

The blogosphere is the space where the dissident may roam free and expose the claims, prophecies and promotional motivations of corporate communicators. This is where the grey suits find themselves laughed out of town, while the unfettered individual can turn activist and ride roughshod over carefully crafted corporate identities.

Filed under:
online PR   flack   astroturfing   flog   clog   corporate blogging   Wal-Mart   Richard Edelman   Carphone Warehouse

1 comment:

Cornelius Puschmann said...

Thanks for the insightful post, Pete. I agree that the ways blogs function is in many ways the inversion of how companies talk to the public. Corporations aren't used to having a symmetrical relationship with outsiders, people who critique their every move and share their criticism with others in a heartbeat. But only because they aren't used to it doesn't mean they cannot adapt to this new situation. What Edelman failed to understand in regards to the Wal-Mart scandal is that honesty is the only thing able to persuade a (rightfully!) distrustful public. Not blogging means remaining aloof and indifferent (or appearing that way, which equates to the same thing) and it means not being able to respond to criticism, something to which everyone - yes, even corporations - are entitled to.

The blogosphere is the space where the dissident may roam free and expose the claims, prophecies and promotional motivations of corporate communicators. This is where the grey suits find themselves laughed out of town, while the unfettered individual can turn activist and ride roughshod over carefully crafted corporate identities.

I'm not sure if there is (or should be) such a thing as "the blogosphere". All sorts of communities create all sorts of "spheres" through blogs, or, more precisely, these spheres become visible to us via blogs, which does not rule out the possibility that they existed before. The difference is that now we can see them and participate in discussions that we would normally be aware of. Different communities follow different discursive practices and they aren't likely to care about whether the way they use blogs conforms to some prescriptivist's ideal of real blogging(tm). There does seem to be a set of universal rules for what you can and can't do which is shared across all communities and Edelman has violated one of them (transparency). But apart from that anything goes and I don't see why people shouldn't blog for their companies any less than you or I - glorious "unfettered individuals" that we are, no doubt about it – should blog. ;-)