Jim and Laura are keen RV'ers from the East Coast of the US. On investigation, they appear to be a real couple, but they've been involved in a raging debate that questioned their very existence.
On a visit to Paige, Arizona they had no-where to stay and pulled into one the car park of one of the small town's few "features" - a Wal-Mart Superstore. They discovered that Wal-Mart allow RV owners to park in their parking lots overnight - for free.
Buoyed by this curious but generous policy of Wal-Mart, the bête noire of the anti-globalisation movement, they planned an East-to-West trip across the States staying in Wal-Mart parking lots. Being a keen writer, Laura planned to write a Blog of their trip, and maybe sell it to an RV magazine. To be safe, Laura decided to contact Wal-Mart to make sure this would be okay.
Conveniently, Laura's brother works for Edelman, a PR company who represent Wal-Mart. Edelman not only secured permissions, they offered sponsorship.
This is Jim and Laura's version of the story as told on their blog Walmarting Across America. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's 100% true.
The problem is, the sponsorship came from Working Families for Walmart, a PR front group for Wal-Mart. A very vocal and vociferous PR front group who spare no punches, using the might of the largest retailer in the world and the second largest corporation in the world, to maul and discredit anyone who dares to criticise them.
Jim and Laura didn't think it important to mention this in their blog.
So off they went, crossing America, Wal-Mart dosh in their pocket, telling stories of the lovely people they met, interviewing happy Wal-Mart staff and dropping in occasional comments about how wonderful Wal-Mart is. (Don't bother looking at it now, they've pulled off all the historical posts - obviously to avoid further scrutiny. They've also belatedly stuck on a Working Families for Walmart logo).
It didn't take long before people discovered the blog (hmmm, I wonder how), and not surprisingly, suspected PR manipulation.
Since being exposed Edelman's President and COE Richard Edelman has taken personal responsibility, quoted on his own blog today saying, “This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s”. Note: not the Account Manager making this quite humiliating climbdown, it's the President and CEO!
Clearly Wal-Mart want to distance themselves from this monumental PR gaffe, or Edelman are terrified of losing a client.
Why don't corporations understand the Social Networking communities? In fact, why don't their PR companies, who after all charge their clients enough for their advice? Edelman should hang their head in shame. They claim to understand the medium, and even recently hired blogging guru Steve Rubel to head their blogging strategy. Rubel has today totally denied any involvement whatsoever in the sorry tale, which must be considered highly unlikely. Imagine - you are Wal-Mart, the second biggest corporation on the planet, you hire Edelman to look after your digital PR, and they don't put their best man on the job. If I was Wal-Mart I'd be rather asking why.
This whole debacle reminded me of the sorry tale of geek blogger Tosh Bilowski, who loved espousing the features of Panasonic AV kit, until he was uncovered as being completely fictitious.
Edelman positioned themselves as a thought-leader, then flouted the WOMMA (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) Code of Ethics to which they subscribe. Shame on them. They've tarred the whole PR industry, humiliated themselves, and worse still, they've soiled the blogosphere, which the corporate world shouldn't be involved in unless they are completely transparent and honest.
As blogger Dave Taylor rightly sums up, "How is it that you violate the WOMMA ethics rule and are still a member? In organizations like the National Speaker's Association, if you violate their ethical standards you're out. No questions, no debate. It's just that simple."
ps If you want a long read, and fancy reading some of the blog entries - Business Week have written an extensive article on the story.
pps It's just been revealed that "Jim" is actually Jim Thresher, a photographer for the Washington Post. He has broken the paper's policy on freelancing, which includes working for a competitor or interest group, and has been ordered to take down his photos, and pay back the $2,200 they received from Edelman.