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:
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.
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.
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?