The Chosen One: Richard Edelman and the Path to the PR Promised Land

I was glad to hear Richard Edelman say that journalists are no longer Gods (thanks for the heavenly tip, Media Orchard). I assume he meant print media and not CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who not only is a God, but also, as we learned from his Hurricane Katrina coverage, can walk on and well as through water.

I stopped being a God – err, I mean full-time journalist – years ago, and let me tell you, it’s been tough (I sometimes freelance, but that’s just to make my mom happy.) As a journalist, I could quote unnamed sources, steal from press releases and get into all kinds of events for free without any repercussions. Now that I have a blog and a real job, I’m expected to quote everything, give credit for everything, and pay for my own food. Mortality is a bitch.

So Edelman says it’s payback time. The gates have come down and journalists have to play by our rules. Blogs killed the media star, he says.

Not so fast.

It’s only been a few days and already I’m as sick of the Edelman-WalMart discussion as I am with any blog post that begins “___ is dead.” The New York Times article that started the whole thing was a bigger "dog bites man" story than the “news” of Iran telling the IAEA to stick it where the plutonium don’t shine.

Nevertheless, I feel I need to go on record and come to the defense of John Wagner, Neville Hobson, and the very few other PR professionals who think that Edelman’s hired bloggers were too loose with the truth.

Semantics or Subterfuge?
Following is a partial transcript of what Edelman employee Marshall Manson wrote in an e-mail pitch to blogger “Bob” of Crazy Politico’s Rantings:

"Hello. I hope you’re well. I just wanted to drop you a line and introduce myself. I’m a blogger myself (I contribute to Confirm Them and Human Events’ blogs among others), but for my day job – I do online public affairs for Wal-Mart…"

As Neville and others have noted, that’s not exactly full disclosure, although it’s better than what a lot of other PR people would do. Nevertheless, Edelman expects more. As he said after the article appeared:

"PR firms must be very conscious to abide by some very clear ethical standards, so that we do not compromise bloggers. First, we must always be transparent about the identity of our client and the goal of the PR program."

Again, for most PR agencies, this thin layer of grey would be just fine. Hell, most PR agencies don’t use blogs at all. The fact that we are even having this discussion represents a huge leap for the industry (remember Richard, if they are shooting at you, you must be doing something right.)

But Edelman Public Relations is not “most” PR agencies – it is the PR agency when it comes to blogs. It is the PR agency because Richard Edelman himself has worked tirelessly to make it so, speaking and cajoling and hiring PR bloggers and non-professionals to rid the world of PR evil and deliver us all to salvation.

So should we hold Edelman to a higher standard? Yes – because Richard Edelman is the one who set the standard in the first place.

The Chosen One
Journalists may not be Gods, but Richard Edelman is the Moses of the PR world, and not just because he is a nice Jewish boy from Chicago or because he recently hired another nice Jewish boy from New York.

Edelman’s agency was among the first to launch a web site in the early ‘90s and incorporate the Web into media relations (and by the way, did it better than most everybody.) He has set the bar and repeatedly raised it, all while maintaining his agency’s independence and his own maverick spirit.

Edelman positioned himself as our leader, the Chosen One who would wrest us from the bondage of traditional public relations and deliver us to the Promised Land of the New PR. Other agencies and practitioners look to him for guidance and some try to emulate his tactics. We don’t know where the Promised Land is, but we assume Richard Edelman will get us there.

So when his employees violated the spirit of his blogging commandments, if not the letter of the Law, Edelman should have smashed the proverbial tablets. We all know perception is reality, and the perception, right or wrong, is that Edelman’s chosen bloggers have sinned. They should be admonished, forgiven, and then set back on the path Edelman has laid out for them, because they are doing the right thing – they just need to do the right thing better.

Now what about journalists and their role in all of this? Do journalists (or at least the New York Times) have double standards when it comes to “transparency” and disclosure? Do they hold bloggers to higher standards than themselves?

Yes – and no. It depends on the journalist. But on this issue it doesn’t matter.

Being less than genuine or compromising your own values is no more “right” just because some journalists behave that way. PR should hold itself to a higher standard, not lower itself to the one that already exists among many in the media.

I’m glad that firms like Edelman are reaching out to bloggers and I wish others would do the same. But as PR professionals we should err on the side of too much information and not leave any room for debate. Blogs give us more power, but we must not let that power morph into arrogance.

You’re right, Richard. Journalists are no longer Gods – and neither are we.

6 thoughts on “The Chosen One: Richard Edelman and the Path to the PR Promised Land

  1. As the “Bob” you mention above, I’d like to point out a few things. Not only was that line included, but his signature clearly showed he worked for Edelman, including his phone number.
    Secondly, in a few places you are refer to people as “hired bloggers”, I’m not sure if those references were to the folks who received the Wal-Mart tips, however, as all have attested, we weren’t paid.
    Finally, on the transparency issue, to the best of anyone’s knowledge exactly 1 blogger posted exactly one tip sheet word for word.
    Even Barbaro, in his many interviews with me (about 9 e-mails, 4 on the phone) stated he noticed many “similar” posts, that seemed they could have come from the same source.
    It wasn’t until after he had my transcripts of the e-mails that he was able to figure out which one that was.
    And why the reference to “a nice Jewish Boy”? a nice guy from New York wouldn’t have gotten the point across?

  2. Bob, thanks for commenting and I appreciate your insight and perspective on the whole issue. Regarding “hired bloggers,” I was referring to Mr. Manson and others whom Edelman has hired more because they were established bloggers rather than primarily professional PR people. I apologize for not being clearer.
    Regarding the Steve Rubel reference, Steve and I have joked about our common heritage before, it was meant in fun and nothing more. Hey, that’s a rhyme, how about that? 🙂
    Thanks again for stopping by and adding your comments to the conversation.

  3. I predict the hot best-seller of 4006 will be a thriller about a secret line of Anderson Cooper descendents living in Monroe, Louisiana. Under the ruins of a burnt-out Wal-Mart. Maybe in a Shanghai suburb? Puhket? Hard to say right now.

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