Wednesday, March 8, 2006; 11:03 AM
I knew a few days ago that the New York Times was planning a piece on big companies like Wal-Mart using friendly bloggers to get their message out.
The reason I knew this, of course, is that some of the bloggers posted preemptive pieces after the paper contacted them for comment. (I have very mixed feelings about that, since no reporter wants to get scooped on his own story because he's trying to be fair by calling people. Welcome to life in the blogosphere.)
More interesting, though, is how Michael Barbaro's Times story paints the practice by Wal-Mart and others as faintly disreputable, when you could argue that it's just classic PR, no different than trying to find the right newspaper reporter (or radio talker or cable host) in an effort to get a fair shake.
It's a very different story, obviously, if a blogger runs the corporate spin verbatim, without disclosing the source, just as it would be for a garden-variety reporter to reprint a handout. Whether bloggers are doing that remains in dispute.
What's not in dispute is that what was once dismissed as a pajama-clad brigade is becoming increasingly influential, to the point that giant companies have to worry about what they say. Dell got tarnished, for example, when it dealt shabbily with Jeff Jarvis over his lemon of a laptop. And as I reported the other day, the Pentagon has created a unit to seek good coverage and knock down bad coverage among bloggers.
The better bloggers are going to have to figure out their own standards for dealing with corporate and political flacks, and those who blindly carry water for outside groups will probably lose credibility over time. But I expect them to be in the minority.
Here's the New York Times piece:
"Brian Pickrell, a blogger, recently posted a note on his Web site attacking state legislation that would force Wal-Mart Stores to spend more on employee health insurance. 'All across the country, newspaper editorial boards -- no great friends of business -- are ripping the bills,' he wrote.
"It was the kind of pro-Wal-Mart comment the giant retailer might write itself. And, in fact, it did.
"Several sentences in Mr. Pickrell's Jan. 20 posting -- and others from different days -- are identical to those written by an employee at one of Wal-Mart's public relations firms and distributed by e-mail to bloggers.
"Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.
"But the strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, has been forthright with bloggers about the origins of its communications, and the company and its public relations firm, Edelman, say they do not compensate the bloggers.