Category Archives: James Bruni

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.

Burson-Marsteller and the Dow Corning Papers

Thanks to blog commentator James Bruni for pointing out this very interesting behind thes scenes look at major reputation management efforts at work. James writes for nowpublic.com and has a PR firm–Bruni PR. The story, covered in PR Watch details how the Burson Marsteller firm and its affiliates worked to help Dow Corning change the image of breast implants after the courts and government had determined that they were dangerous and the company had covered up the facts.

Clearly, this story (and apparently the site PR Watch) has a focus on uncovering the bad behavior of PR firms. And there is no doubt that there are a lot of PR firms engaging in bad behavior. I can tell a few such stories myself. But, I’d like to take a little different view on this story.

Activists groups including NGOs and “grassroots” organizations have developed over the years basic strategies that enable them to be very effective in bringing their cause to the public attention and creating change. Typically these “groups” are presented as grassroots organizations with lots of people behind them, but are organized and managed by one or two or a handful of seasoned pros. Typically these pros have been successful at raising money for their causes and are reasonably well paid by their own non-profit organizations. They work very hard to get media coverage, and they know what red flags to raise. In our hyper competitive media atmosphere, big companies that can be demonstrated to put the public good (health, safety, security, environment, etc.) at risk make excellent career-building stories for young, aggressive journalists. And if there is the slightest hint of a cover-up, well, can you say Woodward and Bernstein?

One great story leads to another, and another, and another. All using the basic set of facts, and all fed by a well organized “PR” planner who feeds additional media what the previous media have covered. They search out and find victims. Do they report that 99% of all customers of the companies product are completely happy and the product is safe in almost all circumstances? No, quite understandably they seek out and find those people willing to show publicly the awful consequences of the company’s disdain for customers and safety. The reporters find their job easier and easier to do.
Now lawyers sense a new area of profit. And now politicians who need to make a name for themselves see that the “public” (actually, a few reporters looking to build careers) have expressed grave concern. Pressure starts building on the regulatory organizations to “do their job” and to protect their reputations they start making it sound like it is a rogue company out of control who will be the subject of their righteous wrath. Adn the juggernaut roars on, but now with the added advantage of it being a major public issue, which does great things for the fund raising efforts of the PR person (activist) who got the ball rolling in the first place.

So, what does the company do? Gets people in place who know how to play this cynical game–know the rules and what works. They seek out people who will be victimized by the change the activists, lawyers and journalists are promoting. They show there is another side. They provide the facts about the benefits of the product or service that balances out the few who may have had negative experience. And what happens? This activity gets “exposed” as an unseamly, dirty game.

Clearly, I’m overstating to make a point. But my point is very clear: it is part of dangerous political correctness today to assume that only activists and accusers have the right to play this game. No one is pure in the ongoing struggle to bring things to public light, find the truth, uncover evil, and make the world a better place. Let us not stop being critical of the Burson Marstellers. But let us, for the sake of what is right and fair, be a little more willing to look at the strategies and tactics of all those who profit from destroying reputations and putting an end to the benefits of too many good products and services.

Bloggers and advertising–more thoughts

Will advertising destroy bloggers’ credibility? That question is raising some interesting comments. I know of one very strong critic of an organization who had a critic blog site, but then discovered the advertising dollars possible by trading on the name of the company he was criticizing. So he attempted to “remake” himself into a credible, objective non-critical blog that would serve as a forum for those who wanted to make pro and con comments about the company. One example of how the lure of advertising dollars can and will affect bloggers.

But James Bruni raises an interesting question about advertisers not spending money on blogs that are strongly left or right politically. I’m not so sure of that. In the pre-Civil war days, print publications were for the most part strongly aligned to one party or the other. We can’t imagine it right now, but what if our media did not pretend to be objective but clearly and unapologetically stated that they supported one party over the other–and everything they wrote about was from the point of view of persuading readers to their editorial position. While perhaps overstating it a bit, that is my understanding of the media pre-Civil War. It changed with AP, Associated Press. The idea was that they would pool the reporters who would provide the facts, then the individual papers would spin the facts the way they wanted and they way their particular audiences expected. They could save money and still report in a partisan manner. What happened is that they found readers rather liked the more objective “just the facts” approach provided by the straight ahead AP dispatches. And this style became dominant eventually.

Media historians, weigh in here. But my point is that there are many advertisers who would be happy to align in one direction or another–and many more who would prefer a more “objective” approach. Of course, talking about “objectivity” in today’s mainstream media is a whole other subject. At least there is the existing convention of presuming objectivity.

Wal-Mart, Young, Edelman and whether to join in the conversation

Interesting comments from James Bruni via the NowPublic blogsite about the Wal-Mart and Andrew Young problems. I find Mr. Bruni’s troublesome. He seems to see in the Andrew Young problem an argument for PR firms and/or communicators for organizations to not engage in the blogosphere.  He quotes Richard Edelman of Edelman PR:
“If there’s a mistake about your company, about your product, send them an e-mail, raise your hand. They will correct it. That’s what our studies show very clearly. Either by striking through and writing ‘here’s the fact.’ Or, by correcting. One or the other. Very few of them will leave an inaccurate post.”

But then Bruni suggests that this advice was undermined by the Andrew Young problem and that now Edelman and their “army of young account executives” was busy backtracking to try to recover from Ambassador Young’s unfortunate comments.

I’m sorry, I don’t see the connection. Edelman cannot be blamed for what Young said, even if they recommended hiring him. Based on his history, the comments are very surprising and could not have been predicted, I believe. Secondly, why would the problem with Young counter the message about engaging in the online conversation? If anything, it is more of a reason to participate. There’s a problem, the blog world is talking about it, and he things now is the time that Wal-Mart should disengage? I don’t think so,

Bruni makes the comment that the blogosphere cannot be controlled any more than the Mainstream Media could be controlled. That is pretty obvious and I don’t think Mr Edelman would disagree either. But because it cannot be controlled does not mean it is not important nor does it mean that companies should not engage.

I wonder if Mr Bruni tipped his hand about why he is thinking this way when he suggests that PR people need to refocus on traditional media while “keeping an eye on the blogosphere.” Wow, here’s where the problem really is, in my mind. Traditional PR people are focused almost exclusively on the old media. Hey, it is still very very important. But the world is changing very rapidly in public communication. To make a call for refocusing on something that almost everyone in the business is primarily focused on strikes me as pretty strange.

My take: Edelman is right, Bruni is wrong. Your take?