Despite the idea that bloggers' independence from the "mainstream media" can offer a broader perspective on the news, or even break important stories, most of us know bloggers need to be watched, too. A New York Times article has underlined that idea, exposing Wal-Mart's (NYSE: WMT ) efforts to use bloggers to improve its public image. Some of these bloggers have not handled the situation responsibly, and that's a big mistake for everybody involved.
The article centers on Brian Pickrell, who created a blog post condemning state legislation to require Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health care. Presenting such an opinion is fine -- there's nothing wrong with thinking the legislation might be a bad idea -- but the post apparently consisted of a whole lot of information, some of it verbatim, that had been fed to the blogger by an employee of Wal-Mart public relations firm Edelman.
Indeed, as Wal-Mart tries to head off the barrage of criticism it often faces, it has begun strategically feeding "news stories" -- consisting of positive press about its business practices -- to the blog community. The New York Times article pointed out that the company tantalizes pro-Wal-Mart bloggers with "exclusive" information as well. (Some bloggers do disclose where they're getting this information.)
Having written about Wal-Mart many times while working for the Fool, I know that the company's fans can be just as avid as its detractors. As much as some of us may not agree with Wal-Mart's practices, many others consider the retail giant one of the ultimate examples of corporate success. I can totally understand how some bloggers might wish to defend Wal-Mart; here at the Fool, we're all about respecting diverse opinions on public companies. But I can't understand why some bloggers would fail to identify where they got their information, especially when it clearly seems to have colored their opinions.
Perhaps this scandal isn't too surprising. As soon as blogs started gaining steam with readers, some companies tried to capitalize on bloggers' popularity by using them for marketing or public relations purposes. This article by longtime Fool Selena Maranjian explores corporate blogging efforts, pointing out that companies such as IBM (NYSE: IBM ) , Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) keep corporate blogs for PR purposes. In addition, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) has a blog that provides "Googler insights into product and technology news and our culture." I've even found myself reading Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI ) CEO John Mackey's blog lately, just for fun.
Wal-Mart's strategy to repair its public image through the blogosphere has resoundingly backfired. News like this makes the company sound sneaky and underhanded, out to launch the equivalent of a corporate propaganda campaign, which of course fires up Wal-Mart's detractors even more. Meanwhile, bloggers who don't disclose their relationships with certain entities or individuals lose a heck of a lot of credibility, tarring the entire blogosphere by association, and making blogs seem that much less reliable as a source of information.
The way I see it, lies of omission are cop-outs. Honesty makes for good ethics and good business.
For related stories, see the following Foolish content:
- Seth Jayson spoke of Wal-Mart's latest black eye in health care.
- Read all about the business of blogging.
- Last year, Stephen Simpson asked whether Wal-Mart deserves to be hated.
Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.