Wal-Mart’s Blog Outreach Backfires

Revelations last week that a handful of bloggers had posted, sans attribution, pro-Wal-Mart opinions directly from one of the retailer’s PR firms throws a spotlight on the struggles of marketers looking to take advantage of the chaotic world of new media.

The campaign’s initial success—influencing the bloggers—suggests that even the righteously independent blogosphere is receptive to a marketer’s advances. But the resulting controversy illustrates the pitfalls awaiting those who wade into the often lawless world of citizen journalism.

Of course, the ultimate success of the effort depends on whether the backlash outweighs the favorable coverage online. But the engagement tactics employed by Edelman remain a case study in effective blog relations.

Marshall Manson, a senior account supervisor on Edelman’s Washington interactive team, said the effort differed from a traditional media relations campaign mostly in tone and approach. The firm identified bloggers sympathetic to their cause and opened a dialogue—but avoided formal pitches. “We were able to engage with bloggers in a way that made them comfortable,” said Manson. “We understand their needs and engaged them respectfully.”

E-mails between Manson and one blogger suggest that flattery and promises of access carry as much cache in the blogosphere as they do offline. Manson assured the blogger that his work “was noticed here and at the corporate headquarters” of Wal-Mart. He then asks if he would like to be sent occasional updates he wouldn’t find in the mainstream media. The response, not surprisingly, was “absolutely.” A long and fruitful string of messages ensues.

He warns, however, that the blogosphere is not a one-size-fits-all environment. “You need to figure out what the right process is for each client,” he said. The approach they took for Wal-Mart is “very different than how we would have done it for someone else.”

Wal-Mart did not return calls.