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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Saturday, October 21st, 2006

Edelman: Must try harder

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

As you might or might not know, I’ve got a relationship with Edelman, the PR company. I know Richard Edelman, I’ve spoken to their clients about blogging, had meetings with them, and spoken at two of their events. I have also worked closely with Jackie Cooper PR, their sister company, providing training and consultancy.

So I’m pretty embroiled with Edelman, and that makes me even more disappointed to be using the ‘Blog Fuckwittery’ category on this post, but it can’t be helped, I’m afraid.

If you’re into the whole PR thing, then you’ll likely have noticed recently that Edelman have got themselves into a bit of a pinch by helping create a fake blog for Wal-Mart. Called ‘Wal-Marting Across America‘, it purported to be a blog by a couple who decided to go on a cheap holiday in an RV (that’s camper van to us Brits), staying in Wal-Mart car parks overnight. What the blog failed to mention was that the project was a publicity stunt and that Wal-Mart were paying for their petrol, food, and the RV. This trick is known in the trade as ‘astroturfing’ (i.e. faking grassroots). Another way of describing it is ‘lying by omission’, and we all know lying is bad.

I’m not going to go into detail here about what was wrong with this specific project because lots of other people have done that, and I don’t much feel like parroting them. (For balance, I include the frankly lame responses from Richard and Steve.) But I do want to discuss a creeping disquiet I’ve felt lately that this serves only to reinforce.

Now, I like Richard Edelman - he seems to be a nice guy, quite savvy, and genuinely interested in the blogosphere, but the problem here is not just that Richard and his team were not transparent, it’s more fundamental than that. It’s that 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’.

The other week, Kevin and I were invited by Richard and his team to attend a briefing that they, with Technorati, were giving their clients about the European blogosphere. Kevin was on the panel and I was asked by Richard just before the event if I could stand up and say something about the difference between US and UK top ten bloggers. I didn’t really blog it, bar a quick mention on Chocolate and Vodka, because I ended up feeling a little bit uncomfortable with some of the basic premises on show, such as ‘the A-list are important’.

There were a lot of other bloggers there, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it, because it was a little too much like they were there for show. For a long time I’ve felt that Richard is indulging in the zooification of bloggers - collecting and displaying them the way that rich people used to do with exotic animals. I worry that this makes him feel that he’s got a better understanding of the phenomenon than he actually has.

Surrounding myself with Chinese speakers does not instantaneously make me a fluent Chinese speaker. Yes, having access to Chinese speakers can help me learn Chinese better and faster, but only if I actually bother to speak Chinese to them. Surrounding yourself with bloggers is a pointless tactic if you don’t talk about blogs with them, if you don’t actually put some effort into learning what all this stuff means. You can’t pick it up by osmosis.

And this Wal-Mart debacle shows that Edelman still have a long way to go before they genuinely understand blogging. There are a lot of values and ethics they have yet to instil in all their staff at an instinctive level - Wal-Marting Across America should have been simply impossible to conceive, one of the ideas that they never had because it runs so counter to blogging culture. The fact that it wasn’t shows that too many people at Edelman think the old school way, about control and being on-message and spin. This is not the blogger way.

Kevin frequently talks about how he sees big media trying to adapt blogs to their business model instead of adapting their business to blogs, and Edelman are making exactly the same mistake - trying to use blogs for PR, instead of trying to adapt PR to blogs. Having a blog isn’t a magic bullet, it doesn’t fix anything. The magic comes from transparency, openness, honesty and engagement. As Kevin says, that’s the cluetrain, this is just clue-fucked.

Now, a few days after the furore, Richard has outlined the steps Edelman are taking to remedy the situation within Edelman. I have a few thoughts about his ideas, in order:

1. ‘Best practice’ is not something you get by put down rules into a document, or creating a set of processes you make people follow. It’s achieved by ensuring your staff have a deep understanding of what blogging is and how blogging culture works.

2. A single class on ethics in social media will not solve your problem - it will barely scratch the surface. I spent six months this year with employees from JCPR, giving them as thorough an insight into blogging as possible by introducing them to all the surrounding technologies and communities, and by encouraging them to read and write blogs. We spent two hours every fortnight for six months talking about and participating in social media, and you know what? There’s still a lot more they don’t know yet (but we’re working on it!). Blogging is not something you can learn in an afternoon, or a day - it’s as complex and alien to PR people as Chinese culture is complex and alien to me. Do not underestimate the scope of the differences - what’s acceptable in PR circles is far from acceptable in blogging circles and it takes a lot of unpicking to see exactly what’s what.

3. A hotline? That indicates to me that you know your staff haven’t got the requisite clue. But tell me, where are you getting all these lovely guidelines from? I’ve been doing blog consulting for nearly three years, and frankly I’m still learning things. The field is evolving rapidly, and I have yet to come across a nice set of guidelines that encapsulate it all.

4. Who’s writing your ethics materials? Please, God, don’t say WOMMA.

Finally, Richard asks for advice, to which my response is: If you really want to understand blogging properly, stop collecting bloggers to display at your events and start actually learning about the blogosphere. Set up a proper training course for your staff, run by someone who actually knows blogs, and who is not a PR blogger. I am highly sceptical of PR, and that allows me to point out to PR people where what they do is at odds with what bloggers do. If you simply employ PR people who happen to blog, all you’ll get is the same old PR attitudes, but with comments and trackbacks. And we all know that that is not enough.

I do think Edelman are doing better than most, but you are also more vocal than most, and if you’re going to talk the bloggy talk, you damn well better be capable of walking the bloggy walk, otherwise you’re going to look more than a little foolish.

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9 Responses to “Edelman: Must try harder”

  1. Richard Edelman Says:

    Suw, I understand your disappointment with the firm. I am not trying to avoid responsibility for the problem; I am taking this as a serious matter which requires immediate attention. I do believe that PR can participate in a substantive and positive manner in the blogosphere. I agree that it means we have to change PR to be transparent, genuine, two-way (so we listen, not just talk). Where I disagree with your post is that this Wal-Mart program was astro-turfing. It was a publicity stunt aimed at the mainstream media with a new media component. We failed to be open about the identity of the photographer–our mistake whether in new or old media. We were entirely clear that the entire tour was funded by Working Families for Wal-Mart, with the travel writer receiving a fee for her time and the photographer simply his gas and food expenses.
    I appreciate your sentiments that this is a long term education process for our people. I am prepared to make that investment. President Abraham Lincoln, when asked about a significant reverse suffered during the Civil War, said, “It hurts too much to laugh but I am too old to cry.” Suw, we are in this for the long run. Mistakes have been made but we are going to get up and ski the hill again and again until we get it right.

  2. richard Says:

    “Richard has outlined the steps Edelman are taking to”

    Watch your grammar.

  3. anu Says:

    From Richard Edelman’s comment:
    “Where I disagree with your post is that this Wal-Mart program was astro-turfing. It was a publicity stunt aimed at the mainstream media with a new media component.”

    wow.

    Suw, I think your last paragraph is pretty well spot on, and I’m just left with the feeling that Edelman are co-opting the values associated with the blogosphere, so that they can launch ‘publicity stunts aimed at the mainstream media with a new media component’.

    This is more than just a disclosure issue, this goes right to the heart of what blogging and social media is about…ie conversation versus publicity stunts.

    wow again.

  4. Marina making pictures Says:

    What a scandal I think Edelman is doing very bad by producing lies in a form of a blog. Readers have the right to know when they are exposed to propoganda.

    Thank you for sharing this story with me !

  5. Steve Says:

    Richard,

    I am not a PR expert, but publicity stunts can backfire. Although they can garner positive attention, stunts can also send less than positive signals.

    For instance, in this case, many feel that Wal-Mart threatens the vitality of the middle class as it stifles its competitors and forces its employees to accept less than enviable wages with meager benefit packages — if any benefits are offered at all. The fact that Wal-Mart was caught fostering a blog that asserts that the company benefits the middle class fuels its opponent’ concerns with more fodder.

    If Wal-Mart knows that it truly benefits the middle class, then why did it try so hard to dispel rumors stating otherwise? Does that give credence to the stances of its opponents?

    Regardless, in this age of wide accessibility to cheap global communication that enables the masses to opine, things can get out of hand quickly as is the case now. A vast army of amateur pundits blogging in their underwear — or possibly wearing anything else, including nothing — from home can quickly counter famous pundits via the word of mouth on their blogs. Since they are so dispersed and unorganized, it is hard to combat such a movement.

    While publicity stunts are sexy at times, they can also reveal that the responsible party behind them is ugly as a stick. That yellow smiley face that revels in lowering prices now has a black eye.

  6. maggie fox Says:

    Suw - great post, really glad I found your blog! As far as the whole Edelman Flog Fiasco goes, aside from the cultural issues you discuss, I think it’s an important cautionary tale for anyone planning to blog their business. Honesty & transparency are the only way to go, for two reasons: no one will “buy” what you’re “selling” if you’re not genuinely engaging, and reporters and news producers everywhere have realized that unmasking a fake blog/blogger is a cheap and easy way to break a big story.

    Lesson: flog at your peril!

  7. Stephen Davies Says:

    Just to be clear. I invited the bloggers to the Edelman/Technorati event. I know some of them personally; met them more than once in the real world.

    My intentions for inviting them were not for “show”.

  8. Cornelius Puschmann Says:

    What I fail to understand is why having some kind of influence over the bloggers was considered being of importance by Edelman (and most people would argue that sponsorship is a way of influencing).

    Repeat after me: “the message” is dead, gone and not coming back. Blogs are conversations, conversations are social interaction and social interaction is about your relationship to a person, not a statement.

    Nothing the two floggers could have written would have been more damaging than the revelations about their relations to Edelman. Note that it’s not even the relationship itself which is problematic, but the lack of transparency.

    What this is really about is an error of judgement: choosing control of the message over the credibility of those who deliver it.

    The medium is not the message.
    The medium is the messenger.

  9. superfancy88 Says:

    Call me a simpleton American but it would have been funnier if it was all transparent. WalMart sponsoring people to camp across the country in a camper=funny.

    And the response to the problem of getting busted would have been funnier if Wal Mart had just had fun with the whole situation, follow up ads that explained the whole thing.

    Cancer is not funny. Child labor is not funny.

    Astroturfing (so long as it’s non-political) is naturally interesting and hilarious! In fact, “astroturfing” — ha ha ha!

    (Are we supposed to grow loyal to WalMart — hangars full of body coverings and near-broken toys — because of their *ADS*? Amuse me, dammit, Bring me up!