Popular PR blogger Josh Hallett recently wondered why retailing giant Target wasn’t taking more heat for an apparent astroturfing program reminiscent of Wal-Mart’s heavily publicized phony blog scandal a year ago. Was Wal-Mart’s gaffe really worse, or is Target benefiting from a better all-around reputation?
Can a solid reputation save you in times of crisis?
The argument could go either way regarding which offense was the greater blogosphere misdeed, but there can be little argument regarding which company enjoys better general PR. Wal-Mart has struggled consistently against accusations ranging from poor labor relations and insufficient employee healthcare to environmental impact (despite the chain’s recent efforts at promoting “green” initiatives). Blogs, websites, activist groups and politicians have all worked tirelessly against the retail monolith. The company has been accused of negatively affecting communities as independent local operations are driven out business when a Wal-Mart appears. Comparisons are drawn between Wal-Mart and McDonald’s regarding globalization and American imperial capitalism.
Target, while taking some heat for low wages and lack of labor unions, mostly escapes activist criticism, possibly due to its extensive charitable efforts. Some issues have arisen, including charges of anti-Semitic practices (Target does not stock Kosher foods and offers inadequate Hanukah decorations, according to some Jewish groups), but the company largely avoids the ire directed at its larger competitor. Target has also clashed with charitable organizations, such as Toys for Tots, refusing to participate in their holiday programs, but generally ranks as one of the top corporations in the country in regards to philanthropy. The company gives five percent of its pre-tax earnings to charity every week, participates in post-disaster relief efforts, and in 2005, Forbes ranked Target first in cash-given to charitable causes.
Let’s examine the mistakes that were made. In October 2006, Business Week and anti-Wal-Mart blog Wal-Mart Watch independently revealed that the voices behind a blog called “Wal-Marting Across America,” a chronicle of a couple’s journey across country parking their RV in Wal-Mart parking lots each night, were actually journalists on an all-expense paid publicity tour for Wal-Mart. The trip was organized by PR firm Edelman and financed by Working Families for Wal-Mart, an Edelman creation.
The story set off a blog firestorm and serves as one of the highest profile social media scandals to date. Richard Edelman himself apologized for the mistake, as did high profile Edelman blogger Steve Rubel. Edelman had helped to craft the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s ethics guidelines in regards to transparency, making the transgression that much more egregious.
For its part, Target caused a stir in recent weeks for encouraging members of its Rounders Program, advocates comprised mostly of college students who receive merchandise and discounts in exchange for promoting the company, to post to the Target Facebook page. The catch, reported in the Rounders newsletter, is that the company expressly urged Rounders members to keep their affiliation and obvious conflict of interest a secret. Comments critical of this program to the Target Facebook page were promptly deleted.
Target responded quickly to retract the request, according to a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story about the kerfuffle, and Target corporate blamed the gaffe on marketing company drillTEAM, calling it a miscommunication of goals–their intention, claims a spokesperson, was merely to prevent the Rounders from dominating the discussion on the Facebook page. But to do so at the expense of full transparency is a major no-no in social media marketing, as such efforts are quickly exposed and castigated by bloggers–usually.
The Target transparency misstep has received little attention, the Star-Tribune is the only major mainstream outlet to report it–compare that to the front page New York Times coverage on Wal-Mart’s phony blog, along with the major blogosphere reaction. Both stories seem quite similar on the outside–compensated participants masking their affiliations while promoting a brand within social media. But only one of the companies involved faces a near-constant battle to strengthen its reputation. It seems that Target’s “do-gooder” reputation may have spared the company from a bigger “flogging” this time around.