Edelman's blogging woes

Business Week is carrying a big story about the Edelman/Wal-Mart blogging situation posted October 17.

Comments on this blog vary considerably about how Edelman is handling it but it is pretty clear that Edelman (whom I respect very much) is in some serious doodoo over this issue. Has Richard Edelman apologized enough and appropriately? Clearly, the irony of helping right the rules which were most severely violated by his own organization is a difficult situation to deal with.

I agree more with James Bruni here who believes Mr. Edelman has apologized appropriately. The only thing I would say is that some additional explanation as to how this happened would be helpful. Did Mr Edelman himself approve the funding of the blog? If so, did he understand exactly the intention and purpose? Did a lower level person approve it? This is a big firm with a lot of things happening. I suspect some decisions were made at lower levels that have come back to bite them and anything that the Chairman would do to explain it would look like buck passing. That is laudable but I think a common mistake in dealing with these crisis events is not to be more forthcoming with the details. People who are interested want to know. Inquiring minds, you know. That’s why the explanation of the Wal-marting blog was helpful and useful–and authentic.

Wal-Mart, Edelman and WOMMA's Code of Ethics

I’m just beginning to learn about this situation myself, but for bloggers and for those dealing with blogwars, this is of great interest. Here is Constantin Basturea’s posts and resources about this issue. The final post from the “fake” blog Wal-Marting Across America is here and it is important to read because it gives an explanation from the bloggers view as to how the whole situation started. In short, a couple decided to travel across America staying in an RV in Wal-Mart parking lots. A brother of one of the couple works for the Edelman PR firm who represents Wal-Mart, and Edelman ended up sponsoring the trip with money for gas, food, etc. While the name of the Edelman campaign was listed on the blog the couple wrote, there was no disclosure within the blog itself of the financial arrangement between the couple and Edelman. This violates the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Code of Ethics.

In the meantime there is another storm brewing on the topic of blogwars. And that is the pending ruling by wikipedia founder Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales regarding whether contributors who are paid by a subject company or organization will be allowed to contribute to wikipedia.

Both of these controversies have profound implications for the culture of the internet as well as the ability of organizations to respond to reputation-damaging online attacks. The value of “free” is very strong among the people who are now setting the rules for the internet and are keepers of the internet cultural values. Free as in open source software, free as in free exchange of ideas, free as in aggressively non-profit. Conversely, there seems to be the idea that money of any and all kinds, and particularly the exchange of it, corrupts. Corrupts ideas, people, interactions, etc. There is much truth in this. But there is also much danger in this new dogma, for that is what it is. Dogma of almost all kinds pushed to its extremes is the basis of fundamentalism and I see a fundamentalist strand emerging in these discussions about what is right and true and should be allowed on the internet and in blogs and in wikipedia.

No doubt some contributors to blogs and wikipedia whose opinions are determined by the dollars they received from paymasters are “corrupted” in the sense that their allegiance to those dollars is greater than their allegiance to truth and authenticity. But the very same accusation can be laid against those who subscribe to a strong political position, or who have motives of their own to attack and destroy others. There is no inherent rightness in those who do not receive pay as there is no inherent wrongness in those who do.

I think it is time to get past this discussion. The blogworld and internet content sites should be open to any and all. I thought that was an underlying credo of the internet. Whether someone is paid or not paid says nothing about their basic honesty, integrity or truth of what they are saying. One need not be any more skeptical of the money motive than they ought to be of political motives or personal vendettas. For the sake of real transparency, the motives of all writers ought to be demanded. Are you intent on seeing our president’s reputation dashed (further)? Then declare it. Are you motivated by a past wrong that a company or person has inflicted on you and now you are using the internet to take your revenge? Then disclose it. Are you taking money from someone who has something to gain by what you are saying? Then disclose it.

Those who demand full disclosure for money but not for other equally powerful motives are displaying not the purity of protecting the value of “freeness” on the internet, but rather are beginning to display a fundamentalist tendency toward selective evils. Let’s protect the true sense of freeness on the internet and allow the free exchange of ideas without demanding motive disclosures. Let’s evaluate what people say rather than making assumptions about motives and how it affects the truth or validity of what they say.

Bloggers beware–here comes the judge

A court in Florida awarded $11.3 million in damages to a woman whose business was damaged by online attacks. Here’s the story from USA Today.  This particular story is interesting because the defendant never showed up and didn’t have an attorney because she lost her home in Katrina. And the battle was over the service she received in helping retreive her sons from a boarding school in Costa Rica where her divorced husband had sent them. Apparently she didn’t like the service she received and posted some bitter complaints on a blog or forum site.

Having been involved in helping companies deal with vicious and untruthful online attacks, this will be seen by many as an important precedent for those concerned about protecting reputations. From that standpoint, I welcome it. The $11.3 million judgment is of course, silly. How they came to this amount from the damage this small business may have experienced escapes me. And of course it is a rather empty victory given the defendant never showed up and clearly does not have the ability to pay.

Another concern is the impact on the freedom of speech that is a value dearly held by the blog world. To know that you can sustain this kind of damage when blasting out your thoughts in the heat of the moment is going to give some people pause. It probably should to some degree. But if our legal system has the same impact on Internet communication as it has in our health care system, our product liability situation, and in most other areas of our lives, we will all be the losers for it. So I hope some balance emerges.

Disaster Planning in LA

I’ve missed several days of posting (unusual for me) primarily because I was in LA and my hotel was switching to wifi from wired and I couldn’t get online. (they forgot to tell me to push the “free” button rather than putting in my room number to pay for it)

I was invited to speak at the LA Chamber of Commerce meeting along with Lynne Doll, president of The Rogers Group. Lynne and I spoke about Crisis Communications. But the meeting was focused on preparing a businesses and organizations for disasters. The first presenter was Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the head of Public Health for LA County. His presentation was on pandemic flu planning and the two remarkable things that stood out for me was that in LA county, 50% of the population of 10 million speaks English. That means 50% do not. The other remarkable thing was that the consensus among world health experts is that the chance of a pandemic involving HN51 is 100%. Yes, that is correct. Most likely not this flu season, but the next.

But it was the keynote speaker that really got my attention. Dr. Lucy Jones is a celebrity of sorts in LA as the region’s top earthquake expert. Her review of the last “big one” in 1857 involving the San Andreas fault, the impact that such a quake would have today in LA, the simulations showing where shaking would occur at what magnitude, the fact that the big one is over 100 years past due–well, I am not a fraidy cat but I have to admit to seriously thinking about running out and getting on the first plane back to safe Seattle. Of course, when I got back to Seattle, the news was about the earthquake near Mt Rainier and whether that was a sign of volcanic activity. Back to LA.

The message for me clearly was preparation. For the first time, I am getting serious about some flu preparations for my two companies. The first step and most important, is to make certain that we can work as a team without being together in the office. The likelihood is that we will stay home–in part to deal with family at home, but mostly to limit social contact. We will be a telecommuting company. And since we are in the crisis communication business, including helping businesses stay in touch with their employees, it is critical that we keep operation, keep our technologies operating, keep ourselves healthy and be available for those who will desperately need us.

What are you doing to get ready?

Wal-Mart's PR challenges

One of the most fascinating crisis management case studies going on is Wal-Mart. Yes, I think Wal-Mart is in crisis, in deep crisis. There are many facets–we love success stories until they become too much of a success. Wal-Mart does destroy many loved and valued local businesses. They are ruthless if legal in the pressure they apply to suppliers. They are not known for high pay and wages. They have stumbled in some of their PR efforts–such as the Andrew Young fiasco. And now, biggest of all, is that they have become a political lightning rod and football (mixing my analogies). That is something no business wants to have happen.

That’s why I find this article from Advertising Age so fascinating. For several reasons. Leslie Dach is heading up Wal-Mart’s PR battle. He’s a former top-level Democratic strategist. He is having to defend his decision to help Wal-Mart against fellow Democrats who want to politicize this situation. Perhaps most interesting is that Dach holds a position at the top level of Wal-Mart. It is what most senior communication managers want but seldom get. Perhaps you have to recognize, as Wal-Mart definitely now does, that the public franchise, or their public license to operate, is one of the most critical aspects of their future.

Good luck, Mr Dach, and I’ll be eagerly watching how you deal with your challenges–particularly those coming from your former friends.

The worst type of crisis to manage

What’s the worst? Smoldering crises. This term I borrowed from the Institute for Crisis Management. According to their annual study of business crises, smoldering crises are the most common type. Something like 75% of crises fit into this category. What is a smoldering crisis? A problem or an issue that is not a full blown crisis event but has the potential for bursting into a real problem. And because it sits in the background and smolders, it is usually not dealt with.

Speaker Hastert’s problem is a perfect example, at least as far as I can tell from the news reports. He apparently was told, perhaps in an offhand way, about a potential problem with Congressman Foley. Something about an inappropriate email. I’m sure he was busy. And as he explained, it was likely mentioned in passing while dealing with a lot of other things. Things more urgent at the time. So it was not dealt with. There was only just a wisp of smoke–certainly no fire.

The ironic thing about this event and other smoldering crises is that it looks pretty stupid if you over react. That is what people need to remember now. Lots of emails can be subject to interpretation. In the light of hindsight, when true motives are revealed, what could be seen as innocent is no longer innocent. But to make a huge deal out of something that is very much disputable leaves one open to accusations ranging from over reaction to paranoia. So it is not easy to determine what wisps of smoke will erupt into flames.

What Hastert needs to do is carefully explain what he knew and didn’t know and why he chose the path he did at that point. Then, other than those seeking political gain, need to put themselves in those shoes and ask what you would do if you were in that position.

The real lesson though is for organization leaders who right now are smelling smoke. You know the smoldering crises in your organization. Chances are there are one or several that have the strong potential for erupting into serious flames. Deal with them now. Take the time to evaluate. Understand the risks and how to manage if they do erupt. But such crises are usually avoidable. Do what you can to avoid them by taking them head on at the earliest possible stage. Then you can avoid the pain and cost of a full blown crisis.

Two great comments on the BoA situation

This is just to encourage crisisblogger readers to read the two very insightful and interesting comments on this blog about BoA and their problems with Clark Howard and Michael Shinnick.

Last time I checked Clark’s website, the amount withdrawn was over $20 million.

Bank of America–please wake up!

Hastert looks in trouble over Foley

Here’s what you don’t want to have happen. One news report says Speaker Hastert knew about Representative Foley’s questionable email exchanges with a page, and another one says he had no idea. If you look closely, you can see that both may be true (depending on your definition of lurid) but such fine lines recall trying to define the word “is.”

From Newsvine: House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Monday that GOP leaders did not see Foley’s Internet exchanges and that he would have demanded Foley’s expulsion if he had known about them. “As a parent and speaker of the House, I am disgusted,” Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters in Washington.

From Foxnews:

Hastert, R-Ill., acknowledged that Foley’s 2005 e-mail to a Louisiana boy seeking a photograph raised a “red flag” with the Louisiana congressman who sponsored the page, but said his staff aides and Rep. John Shimkus, another Illinois Republican who chairs a board of House members who oversee the page program, did not know the contents.

Rep. Tom Reynolds, the House GOP campaign chairman, said he told Hastert in the spring of this year about the questionable e-mail. Hastert says he does not recall the conversation but does not dispute Reynolds’ account.

The point: it is so doggone easy to get caught in those seams of truth and when you do, as it appears here, you have big problems. So much so that these statements and apparent contradictions can quickly overshadow the issue of Foley himself and what he did and how he is responding. Such is the nature of “coverup” in today’s journalistic environment. Blood on the water.

So, as always. Speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Keep it simple. If Hastert had said from the beginning there was an earlier email that raised some red flags but was evaluated at that time as not justifying taking stronger action, he might have been criticized for that decision. But now, the focus will be on him for not being honest in his statements–a much bigger problem.

How viral blogging works–fascinating case study by Eric Kintz

Previously I blogged and posted a link to a posting by Eric Kintz about whether or not posting frequency mattered. Eric took that posting and followed it around the blogosphere, tracking where it got linked and turned it all into a most fascinating case study of blogging’s power. It is viral marketing at work.

Here’s the case study. 

Kintz goes on to explain some of the secrets to accelerating the conversation, such as getting it linked on tier 1 blog sites (those with 1000 or more links.)

And obviously he’s working the system since he just commented on my blog since I was one of those who referenced his article in my blog and now am doing it again. Thanks Eric!