Wal-Mart’s Blue-Light Special On Astroturf

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.

3 thoughts on “Wal-Mart’s Blue-Light Special On Astroturf

  1. If the perceived payoff is significant enough, most people will sell their soul to the Prince of Darkness. This is evident daily when millions of people who should know better keep taking a juicy bite out of Wal-Mart’s poisoned apple. Why should anyone expect that bloggers would be exempt from the instant-gratification ethos pillaging American society at large over a pesky little distraction like principle?

  2. What if you receive a press release that raises an issue of interest with you and you decide to discuss the issue, but without parroting your original inspiration? Should you disclose that?

    I would think you shouldn’t have to disclose what it is that inspires you to write about any particular issue, be it some talking head you saw on TV or a marketing piece. We are all pretty sure that “real journalists” get much of their story ideas from DNC talking points, after all.

    I agree that copying the Walmart press release without attribution is horrible, but if Walmart simply brought something to your attention that you agreed with and wanted to discuss, must you say it was the Walmart email that set you off? I’m not so sure.

  3. I first heard about the Starbucks Crossword Contest from a PR person at Edelman. I wrote a post deconstructing the press release.

    I was trying to send you an email, but I couldn’t find an address…


    I’m writing to ask for your assistance. I’m presently writing a paper that will be submitted to the International Workshop on Weblog Ecosystems, which will be in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK in May of this year. I’m writing a paper on the Minnesota Organization of Blogs, and I would like to take a survey of members of the MOB to see how the MOB compares with other profiles of bloggers, and the general public.

    All of this data will be kept strictly confidential.


    The reason I’m asking about age is because there was a recent journal article that said three out of four LiveJournal bloggers were between 16 and 24 years of age. I know we have a much wider spread, but I’d still like to be able to compare it.

    Marital Status:

    The reason I ask this is because Nick Coleman said that bloggers were the lonely guys listening to police scanners. I know this is not the case, but I want to compare it with the general population

    Level of Education:

    Nick inspired me to this one as well, when he compared journalists to astronomers. I believe we are significantly more educated than the general public, but I want to confirm this.

    How do you read the blogs you read regularly? Do you surf a blogroll, use an RSS aggregator, use the favorites menu in your browser, etc.

    The reason I ask is because other papers haven’t discussed this, and I was curious.

    How many of your regularly read blogs are other MOB blogs? How many of your regularly read blogs are outside the MOB?

    The reason I ask this is because I’m curious as to how many of the visits to MOB blogs are from other MOBsters, and how many are from outside the MOB.

    What was your traffic for the month of January? (Be honest, now! If you can give both visits and page views, that would be great)

    The reason I ask this is because I plan to say “The MOB received x visits and y page views in January.” Your number will just get added together with all the rest. I get less traffic than most members of the MOB, so I’m definitely not interested in comparing individual stats.

    If I can get this information from you by this Thursday, that would be great.

    Best wishes,

    Dr. Douglas Bass

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