Opinion: Bogus bloggers will always be found out

There is a valuable edict among PR professionals that they must never become the story. So when Edelman CEO Richard Edelman looked at the front page of BusinessWeek.com on Wednesday, he must have known he had a real problem.

The headline read: ‘Wal-Mart vs the Blogosphere - fallout from the retailer's "astroturf" blog scandal may end up hitting PR firm Edelman the hardest.'

Edelman knew his firm was in trouble a week earlier, when BusinessWeek disclosed that an innocent-looking blog called ‘Wal-Marting Across America' - which saw ‘Jim and Laura' touring Wal-Mart stores in a camper van and talking to employees - was in fact created and funded by Edelman, whose client was Working Families for Wal-Mart.

Laura and Jim turned out to be a paid journalist and photographer. Laura's brother worked for Edelman, and Jim for The Washington Post, which insisted he pay back the money he received for the trip. Richard Edelman has been an evangelist for blogs for years, and a supporter of ‘open and transparent' relationships on the internet. Edelman issued a statement earlier this week - via the popular Scobleizer blog - apologising and pledging full disclosure in the future.

His statement has understandably been met with a lukewarm response from the blogging community. Some praise him for his hands-up apology, while others claim he is a discredit to blogging.

Wal-Mart has distanced itself from the project but, worryingly, many bloggers are questioning whether they can now really trust any positive post about the retailer.

Richard Edelman should be lauded for his pioneering work in online PR, but he now has some serious crisis management of his own to do.

The lesson for the PR community is to use blogs with care. Monitor them carefully, and encourage an open dialogue between organisations and stakeholders, but never fake a blog because in cyberspace, there really is nowhere to hide.

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