The New York Times has a piece on Wal-Mart’s efforts to use bloggers to pass on their PR statements:
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.
But some bloggers have posted information from Wal-Mart, at times word for word, without revealing where it came from.
Glenn Reynolds, the founder of Instapundit.com, one of the oldest blogs on the Web, said that even in the blogosphere, which is renowned for its lack of rules, a basic tenet applies: “If I reprint something, I say where it came from. A blog is about your voice, it seems to me, not somebody else’s.”
As a note of full disclosure, this blog was one of the blogs contacted by Wal-Mart.
I didn’t respond, mainly because I already get enough talking points from different people, almost all of which go unread, and also because I’ve no particular interest in Wal-Mart as a company. I will write about labor issues and other matters of public policy that may effect corporations like Wal-Mart, but I’ve no desire to defend a particular corporation unless there’s a matter of public policy at stake. Like most bloggers, I suspect, I don’t care much for astroturfing, and the idea that someone would not only accept a company’s talking points, but post them without proper attribution strikes me a grossly unethical. Wal-Mart can’t be faulted for trying to get their message out, but those bloggers who post their talking points without attribution or full disclosure do so at the risk of tarnishing their reputations.
Bloggers have to use some common sense. Bloggers who post materials without attribution, especially someone else’s canned talking points, can’t expect to be taken seriously and sooner or later astroturfing efforts like this will be discovered. Likewise, corporations can and should build relationships with bloggers, but need to acknowledge that efforts at bribery or astroturfing are not something they want to be caught with later on. It’s one thing to pass along talking points, it’s another thing for a blogger to simply echo them.
We rightly criticize the media for being nothing more than a mouthpiece for various special interest groups that simply rewrites their talking points without original analysis. It’s crucial to the credibility of this medium that we not do the same – and when someone does, that we quickly move to correct the error.