Yes! An unabashed praise for Richard Edelman. We will learn from your mistakes..

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I dare to predict that in a few years (or maybe even a few months) many of those who, on-and-off-line, today criticise Richard Edelman for his ‘mistakes’ in the use of the blogosphere to represent the interests of big league clients such as Wal Mart and Microsoft will grudgingly recognize that our professional community owes a substantial professional as well as cultural debt to one of its more distinguished, successful and competent senior colleagues…First of all, lets get some facts straight.In the first instance the Edelman company publicly and officially apologised for having omitted to explicit that a blog dedicated to a road-show tour describing life in Wal Mart outlets was supported by that Company. However, the apology came only after someone found out and the news began to circulate in the blogosphere.In the second instance criticisms began to appear when some selected bloggers wrote having received as a gift, from the Edelman company on behalf of Microsoft, a Dell Ferrari portable loaded with the software company’s most recent Vista system. However, we have yet to learn if, when and what Richard Edelman will have something to say about this ‘incident’.

And now, lets comment:

1.

There is no doubt that, amongst the ten top global public relations companies, Edelman has been and remains the most visible, bold and visionary in adopting and adapting consolidated processes and competencies to new technologies.

It is only normal and expected that early adopters face more risks than others, particularly when they position themselves as such, as Edelman has. This stimulates comments, opinions, envies and rumors from competitors as well as from individuals who had thought or done the same things well before but, for many reasons, were not able to establish them on the market place.

Notwithstanding these higher risks, the innovation process in that company appears to be continuing and, in my personal view, we have received from Edelman over the last few years more inputs of ideas, know how and innovation than possibly any other public relations company since the profession emerged.

I certainly have no secret access to Edelman figures, but I bet that in a few weeks we will be learning that in 2006 that company will have had the best financial year of its history, both in terms of revenues as in terms of profits.

2.

I would like any honest senior public relator to raise her/his hand for all the times in his career that he supported, on behalf of any sort of clients (ngo’s included please..), some sort of ‘front group’ and omitting to explicit this. Yes, I know this is not to be done. But…up with your hands please ..be honest about it..nobody is looking at you!

In the ‘real world’ nine times out of ten nobody ever finds out.

In the ‘virtual world’ instead it is more common that someone will have access and the opportunity to say it to the world, without having to go to the trouble to find an interested journalist.

And this is at least one instance in which the two worlds differ, as Richard found out at his own expense, and we have learned the lesson.

Personally, I have in my professional career used more front groups than I care to remember… What I do however remember with pride is the success I achieved each time I used a front group making this clear from the very beginning.

I learned this lesson….publics often do not care where the info comes from, but they do get mad if they find out that the info came from a source which did not declare its interests, and they do reward those sources which are explicit from the very beginning.

One highly controversial case I remember is when, on behalf of the tobacco industry, in the early eighties, I engaged in a three year direct-mail dialogue with some 20 thousand selected representatives of Italy’s elite in support of a wider ranging communication program through radio, dailies and weeklies which invited Italian smokers to be ‘courteous’…i.e. recognizing that their legitimate consumption could bother others. Every single statement, letter, conversation, leaflet …whatever else, was signed with the names of the four international cigarette manufacturers who where financing this effort, and the ‘front group’ in this case was called the Center for Tobacco Information. The most daunting and difficult part of the project was to convince the clients that this was to be done so…

Had the Edelman managers, responsible for the Wal Mart-supported blog, thought twice and decided to say that it was, certainly the case would not have caused any problem and the initiative would have been a success.

Too bad, they made a mistake and Richard publicly apologised.

How many times has the CEO of any small, mid or large agency apologised publicly for having made a mistake, without being obliged to do so by a client or a tribunal?

I do not remember this happening for many other more serious pr related scandals, including those who had contributed to the military invasion of other countries by portraying the desperation of false young kuwaitian nurses…or, only a few years later, including in a cabinet memo that in only 18 minutes the Iraki weapons of mass destruction would have reached the UK!!!

Oh, yes you know what I am talking about, don’t you? Hill & Knowlton just before the 1992 Gulf war and Alistair Campbell in the ten-year-later decision of the UK government to invade Irak.

3.

And now to the Microsoft case.

In reading the various posts on this issue I have yet to understand if it was absolutely necessary for Edelman to send selected bloggers a portable with the new software to try out, or if this was an excess.

Intuitively I would say it was an excess, but I also read experts who purport that if Edelman had sent only the software to be installed the bloggers’ computers would have been, as they write, ‘fucked up’.

If the case is the latter, then the whole debate is unnecessary and malign. If not, then the issue is obviously there.

Please now raise your hand if, in your even short lived career, you have ever supplied for free, in the way of a product, an application, travel, reimbursement or whatever, an individual you believe to be influential for the success of any effort you are conducting for any sort of client (ngo’s included!).

Only one hand is sufficient, thank you!

Yes…nothing new under the sun.

In immediate postwar Naples, Achille Lauro a charismatic candidate for the Monarchist party became famous for giving would-be voters only one of a pair of shoes only to give the other when the elector returned with the certificate he had voted.

More recently in Milano a colleague held a press conference to present a pair of skis and gave participants one ski, committing to send the second one at home once the complimentary article had appeared!

Come on…let’s be serious!

I agree that it would have been better had this Dell Ferrari not come in the mind of whoever came up with it, but this is very venial..no?

However, it is not venial in the blogosphere, and this is yet a second lesson Edelman has learned for us at their expense. Thank you for all these mistakes…we are learning.

To conclude: in Italy they say ‘se non risichi non rosichi’ i.e. if you don’t risk you don’t chew!

Well, these two incidents an effect of typical mainstream public relation jerk knee reactions by professionals who are addicted to traditional ways of doing things– are teaching all of us that there is something out there (the blogosphere) which is new, delicate and more public than those traditional negotiations and bartering activities in which we normally engage in when we deal with familiar rugged and worn out journalists. This ‘something new’ needs to be approached with great care as every word you utter or act you undertake is out in the open.

So be very attentive and if you are so good as to avoid making a fool of yourself, you know damn well, even if you are not ready to admit it, who you have to express gratitude to: Richard Edelman. His company is big enough and good enough to survive and thrive while we will have learned our lesson the easy way, by having someone else pay for it. Your opinion?   

8 COMMENTS

  1. Tony, while I agree on the positive judgment about Edelman as an innovative agency, I can’t agree with you about Edelman’s mistakes. They show that the agency has no idea of the role of absolute transparency on the net, a concept that should have been understood and digested in the early years of the web (i.e., between 1995 and 1999). Internet is now a mature environment, and a leading PR agency – as Edelman undoubtedly is – shouldn’t ignore its basic principles.

  2. When I worked at a gret big agency, (Burson, for those curious) I know that a great deal of what we did in Toronto was not discussed with the president of the branch, or the chairman for Canada, nor the big shots in New York.

    So I’m not sure Richard is guilty of anything other than not living 34 hours a day, so he could learn everythinghis agency is doing.

    That said, Edelman’s training program is obvious lacking, becaue some people pretty senior must have known about the RV project, and not stopped it.

    And, as I;’ve written before, Wal-Mart certainly knew it was a fake deal, and that knowledge, I’m willing to bet, was held very close to the top of Wal-mart’s PR department.

    Front groups? I used to be Executive Director of The Candian Detergent Industry Committee for WAter Quality. You’d have to be really stupid to not catch on that this was run by the detergent industry manufacturers, in Canada.

    Free stuff to bloggers — where do I send my address? And what kind of paperwork accompanied these computers?

    All around the worlkd there are thousands of expensive or semi-expensive things in the hands of real journalists, let alone bloggers, place there by PR people or marketers, so that the writers can see for themselves what te thing does, and how well.

    Except for holier-than-thous places like Consumer Reports magazine, those cars being tested belong to the manufacturers, and journalists are allowed to take them home and go to the grocery store in them. Some car writers dont own a decent automobile themselves, because there are always test cars available.

    And does anyone think that demo software gets returned?

    What’s more interesting is that people think journalists can be bribed. PR peole may give or loan stuff, but it is the writer who decides what words to publish.

    In my four decades, I haven’t had much to give away on behalf of clients or employers, except for telephones. When I gave away a phone becaue I wanted someone to write about it, I was happy enough never to get it back. What was I going to do with a used phone int he shape of Mickey Mouse or an airplane? I could send it to our repair and overhaul shop, but it would cost us almost as much to refurbish the phone as it cost to make it inthe first place. Why bother.

    BAK

  3. Interesting post as usual, Toni. Just three ideas:

    1. Richard Edelman cannot be held responsible for the material work carried out by his employees, but has a moral responsability as every entrepreneur has. I mean: he should state clearer guidelines for his employees.

    2. There is a difference between Walmart’s fake blog and Microsoft giving away laptops with Vista installed on them. Walmart’s blog was discovered to be fake and it is clearly a violation of the usual agreement between bloggers and readers which is based on the fact that bloggers should be clearly identified. Microsoft was very clear with the bloggers: they knew the package was coming from Bill Gates’ company. Everything was perfectly clear to everybody.

    3.A last sad thought to the colleague who is used to present skis asking for articles. First of all it is an offense to the dignity of the journalists and I would get if I were a journalist. Secondly I think they cannot accept this kind of of proposals due to some deontological rules which should have been stated by their national association (I mean the “Ordine dei Giornalisti”).

    My best wishes for a wonderful 2007!

  4. Italo and Carlo,
    your points are all well taken and of course I agree.
    I did not intend to say that ‘mistakes’ were not made in either case, which are, as Carlo says, substantially different.
    Instead, I intend to argue that our professional community owes much to a senior professional who makes mistakes, recognizes them and publicly apologizes, while at the same time not relenting his forceful push towards a new practice based on dialogue and conversation rather than one way and persuasive communication.
    I certainly do not contend a bloggist’s right to require that anyone in the blogopshere follow strict neo-puritan norms in order to preserve as long as possible its aura of attraction (had public relators and their associations behaved the same way in the past and present, they probably wouldn’t be in the dismal conditions they are in today…see previous post).
    What I contend is that many of our more luddite, or geek colleagues (in this case I have read or heard from both sides of the fence…and this, in itself, is telling…)sneer, slander and attack out of envy, sheer ignorance, in some cases wishing that this ‘blogonightmare’ which has recently ‘bouleversé’ their profession suddenly disappear… and fail to recognize how all these incidents in fact help reinforce and strengthen our collective knowledge and competence.

  5. If I do not get wrong, the Ms Vista affaire went that way: Edelman sent 2.000 dollars computer to a list of bloggers without saying clearly: 1. this is a test computer and it is not a gift; 2. when you will have finished the test, we will send a FedEx to take it back or you can donate it for charity (since a used computer has no value for us!).

    It could have been very simple to set the rules and avoid any ambiguity. But they choose to be ambiguous and the message was perceived like this: we are sending you a very expensive computer with Vista on it, keep it and write a very good review.
    Maybe, this is the way it works with journalists and it is common practice to donate stuff to have (good) reviews.

    Edelman did another error: they sent these computers also to Mac fans and some of them had very bad reactions. Why did they do that without asking before? I have two answers: 1. read before (if I send you a 2K gift, I expect that you reciprocate… that’s how it works…); 2. they do not read the blog they addressed. I do not know which is the worst!

    Ciao e buon 2007. Nicola 🙂

    P.s. And of course, some errors do not jeopardize years of reputations, if they remain few…

  6. Toni, you’re right. In Italy, for our passion for the soccer, we say that “siamo tutti allenatori” (all men are trainers): this is the same. But it’s clear that when you’re a bold pioneer, you take risks.
    About front groups I’m completely agree with you and I think that (maybe) these criticisms are the direct consequence of the Wal Mart case
    Personally I consider the first case (blog) not an incident but a premeditated (and dangerous) omission while, about Microsoft case, we are talking about a normal pr activity and so I don’t see where’s the problem.
    Naturally if we want to consider Dell Ferrari portables like bribes…ok…we can say that this is another mistake of Richard Edelman but I don’t think so.
    Probably it’s worse if one of these bloggers accepted this laptop as a gift (and not as a test) and if his opinion has been influenced from it. Or not?
    I say it because I consider a blog as influential if the blogger is reliable. If he can be influenced with a simple computer, my dubt is where’s his credibility?

  7. About Microsoft case, I’ve just finished to read some interesting articles on the website RSInews (http://www.rsinews.it – I’m afraid but it’s only in italian) that’s an important source of news about Social Responsibility.
    This week there are 3 articles, or better “denunciation”, from Mr. Franco Abruzzo (President of Journalist’s Association for the region Lombardia) about three possible cases of “bribes” from private company to influence the opinion of some journalists (or it’s better to say to buy their opinion?).
    In the first case he said about the invite of Azimut (company specialized in promotion and distribution of financial services) to some journalists to present their results. Where? In Dubai and completely free (luxury hotels, excursions by jeep and by motorboat, cocktails on the beach and so on).
    The second case is about invitations of BMW and GM-Opel to some Italian journalists in Bologna (Motor Show Fair), in Detroit ( NAIAS – North American International Auto Show ) and in San Diego to present the new model of Opel Corsa. Naturally everything is free.
    And then, in the third and last case, the invitation of Donatella Versace in China to visit her new shop…10 days between Beijing, Shangai and Hong Kong to visit only a shop. In this way I would love shopping too!
    Actually this 3 articles are letters of Mr. Abruzzo to Italian editors to invite them to supervise these attempts of private company to influence their journalists.

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