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Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Buying Bloggers

A while back I wrote about the notion of bloggers representing the first truly free press. I was far from convinced that this was true, or even a good thing if it were true. Corporate America has apparently decidedly it certainly is not a good thing if it were true, though their reasons are far different than mine.

I received a link to an article in yesterday’s New York Times. The article, “Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in P.R. Campaign,” read in part:

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.

As the article points out later, Wal-Mart isn’t the only company to work with bloggers. However, it reads, “What is different about Wal-Mart's approach to blogging is that rather than promoting a product — something it does quite well, given its $300 billion in annual sales — it is trying to improve its battered image.”

According to the article, messages have been sent to bloggers in which “. . . Wal-Mart promotes positive news about itself.” The author of these messages is “Marshall Manson, a senior account supervisor at Edelman who writes for conservative Web sites like Human Events Online, which advocates limited government, and Confirm Them, which has pushed for the confirmation of President Bush's judicial nominees.”

Wal-Mart claims not to pay bloggers for posting these messages. Even if that’s true, the article says these bloggers were contacted by Manson after criticizing or endorsing Wal-Mart and offered “’newsworthy info about the company and an occasional nugget that you won't hear about in the M.S.M.’ — or mainstream media.”

The article adds:

Wal-Mart has warned bloggers against lifting text from the e-mail it sends them. After apparently noticing the practice, Mr. Manson asked them to "resist the urge," because "I'd be sick if someone ripped you because they noticed a couple of bloggers with nearly identical posts."

Yeah, right.

Even if money does not change hands, these bloggers are in bed with Wal-Mart. At the very least, bloggers who do this are acting as a mouthpiece for these companies in exchange for getting information, which they clearly hope makes their blog more popular. Blogs that are more popular have more money-making potential.

In the interest of full disclosure: I applied for entrance into Wal-Mart’s affiliate program, and was turned down. The program allows site owners to promote deals from the company’s site in an effort to earn commissions.

I have no problem with bloggers making a buck. The goal of making money is the main reason I blog. I’d do cartwheels (or at least try to) if I found a sponsor for The Casual Critic.

That’s not what this is. Sponsors can’t wait to tell readers who they’re supporting. The logos and links of companies are all over the blogs they sponsor. This is also not affiliate selling, in which the connection between site owner and selling company is made abundantly clear.

This, as the person who sent me the link said, is selling out. Companies and bloggers that do this know it’s slimy — it’s why they hide their connection.

Worst of all, it’s more than just an attempt by Corporate America to buy public opinion, which is bad enough but at least we’re used to the form such efforts usually take. This is buying bloggers in a deliberate effort to corrupt the best vehicle available for the voice of the every day guy.

This is disguising advertising as commentary, and if that becomes commonplace we can stop worrying about being whether or not bloggers are a part of a free press. We’ll know they’re not.

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