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Wal-Mart: Blazing the Trail to Distrust

Wal-Mart: Blazing the Trail to Distrust Tom Hespos

Wal-Mart's social media initiatives have been the talk of the blogosphere for months, and not in a good way. For those of you planning social media strategies for your companies and clients, you might look to Wal-Mart for a number of clear examples of what not to do.

This cannot be faked
Wal-Mart's latest PR fiasco involves a blog called "Wal-Marting Across America," which was served up to the public as a sort of chronicle of the adventures of two people who were traveling the country in an RV, spending each night parked in a different Wal-Mart parking lot. The two, billing themselves as "Jim" and "Laura," blogged about their experience, interviewing Wal-Mart customers and employees along the way.  The trip was underwritten by a group called "Working Families for Wal-Mart."

What could be wrong with this? For starters, the blogosphere was somewhat skeptical about Jim and Laura's motives, since according to an October 8 article in BusinessWeek, people began to question how much money Working Families for Wal-Mart had paid the couple. Working Families is an organization set up by Wal-Mart's PR agency, Edelman, as a counterpoint to widespread criticism of the big box retailer.

And then folks found out that Jim, who didn't reveal his last name, was a Washington Post photographer who probably shouldn't have been doing what he was doing.

Not the first time
Wal-Mart isn't exactly the darling of the blogosphere, or of the mainstream media for that matter. The retailer has a near-constant buzz circulating about how it deals with issues like benefits for employees, unionization and competition with local businesses, to name a few. 

I'd characterize the company's dealings with the blogosphere as taking a top-down approach as opposed to a bottom-up one, and that's part of the problem. The result is that the company's ham-handed approach to dealing with bloggers becomes news in and of itself, which is rarely desirable.

For instance, bloggers have been talking quite a bit about dealings with Edelman concerning Wal-Mart. A well-publicized dustup with the folks at Consumerist, a site that guides readers "through the delinquencies of retail and service organizations," has bubbled up through the blogosphere and is being pointed to as yet another example of what not to do.

Then there's the lack of transparency demonstrated earlier this year when Wal-Mart was found to be feeding exclusive pieces of information to bloggers, who then republished the information word-for-word without explaining where it came from. In this instance, some of the bloggers who had republished the exclusive nuggets were probably more at fault than Wal-Mart or Edelman, but the fact that relationships weren't disclosed violated an established tenet of blogging that calls for complete transparency.

I'd be lying if I said some of the egg didn't land on Wal-Mart's face.

Then there's The Hub, Wal-Mart's failed attempt to latch on to the MySpace craze with its own social networking site.  The site was shut down earlier this month.  Wal-Mart says it was because the promotion that launched it was over, but we know a failed initiative when we see one.

The Hub drew fire from bloggers and podcasters alike, especially after site users started noticing spam-like comments that plugged products.

What's causing the distrust?
At the root of Wal-Mart's problem is its top-down approach to social media. Bloggers are cognizant of the notion that Wal-Mart's woes are something it believes to be a PR problem best handled by a PR agency. These bloggers are left wondering whether any of the positive comments they read about Wal-Mart on blogs are the result of a PR campaign handed down from Wal-Mart's corporate ivory tower. Some are also likely wondering why Wal-Mart's opinions and dialogue need to come through an agent instead of directly from the people in the organization itself.

Another big problem is a lack of transparency. Wal-Mart ought to be commended for getting involved in social media, but while the medium might be new, its approach is decidedly old school PR. Characterized by private conversations, exclusive information and manufactured news, this approach will likely never improve the brand's reputation. 

What SHOULD Wal-Mart do?
First of all, Wal-Mart needs to scrap the top-down approach. Good social media strategies make use of individual voices, not managed messages. Get some of the people from Wal-Mart corporate to respond to concerns meaningfully instead of playing in the influence sphere. People see "influence" coming from a mile away and easily sniff it out.

Secondly, Wal-Mart should commit itself to transparency. Bloggers don't respond well to hidden agendas or hidden alliances. Once Wal-Mart commits to discussing issues out in the open, it will begin to turn things around.

Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com. Read full bio.

Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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