Anthony Hilton: Retailers will watch Wal-Mart's blogs

As British supermarkets prepare for another competition investigation, one hesitates to suggest they should take a leaf out of US retailer Wal-Mart’s book, but one might understand if they were tempted.

There are several websites devoted to criticising Wal-Mart and its tough employment practices. But now, according to the New York Times, it responds to positive comments about the firm by using an employee at a PR firm to offer such bloggers further, often non-public, information on the group. These exclusive emails give the positive side of the Wal-Mart story – by announcing, say, high numbers of job applications received by a new store prior to its opening – and have even spread negative stories about competitors.

Wal-Mart does not try to conceal from the bloggers that ultimately it is behind this news flow, and neither does it offer any payment.

However, its comments are frequently cut and pasted onto websites exactly as Wal-Mart wrote them, but usually without the source being acknowledged. Of course, newspapers do not always name sources either, but newspapers don't present themselves as a platform for an independent individual view. Influencing the bloggers in this way is more like the readers' letters page being filled with anonymous corporate PR.

In the US, companies have used bloggers before. General Electric executives met environmental commentators to enlist their support before launching a major initiative in energy efficiency. Microsoft used bloggers to spread the word about its new X-box console, as did Cingular to assist the launch of a mobile phone. What is different about Wal-Mart is that it is using bloggers to improve its battered image, rather than promote a product. Britain's supermarkets will be keeping a keen eye on whether the tactic is successful or not.

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