Tag Archives: Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Astroturfers Revisited

Good piece (video) by Jon Ronson about astroturfing:

Esc and Ctrl: Jon Ronson investigates astroturfing – video

In the second part of Jon Ronson’s series about the struggle for control of the internet, he looks at online astroturfing – when unpopular institutions post fake blogs to seem more favourable. He meets the former vice president of corporate communications for US healthcare company Cigna, who confirms his involvement in this kind of activity

He talks about the “death panels”: the Cigna whistleblower, Wendell Potter [Wikipedia] tells him that the company created lots of fake blogs and groups, all of which have since disappeared, including from archive.org, to get the issue going. Looking at a google search trend of the term “death panels”, you can see how it appears from nowhere so suddenly:

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I’ve not seen an issue spring from nothing to the max quite like that for a while.

No question that we don’t really know just how widespread this is. It’s good that Ronson, whom I greatly admire, is on the case. Should be entertaining and revealing too.

Here’s some stuff I’ve written about this in the past:

The Real Conversation I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

Social Media and Politics- Truthiness and Astroturfing Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The Real Conversation

We all keep talking about the idea of conversations — the “market as a conversation” (as opposed to the companies shouting at us to buy their stuff) and, nowadays, as the blogosphere as the manifestation of this. The problem is: A conversation between whom and whom? And, more important, what happens when the conversation starts getting spun, as all conversations do?

I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

(Because there’s so much out there already on this, I should probably point out the facts as we know them: A couple hoping to drive across the country , BusinessWeek reported, discovered that Wal-Mart allows Recreation Vehicle users (RVers) to park in their lots for free, so they decided to do that every place they stopped. They sought the approval of an organisation called Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization set up by Edelman to fight bad press against the chain. The organisation decided to sponsor the couple’s entire trip, paying for the couple to fly to Las Vegas, “where a mint-green RV would be waiting for them, emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo.” The group also paid for gas, set up a blog site, and paid the woman a freelance fee for her entries. The final post on the blog discloses all this, including the connection between the couple and Edelman. But until then the only evidence of a link to Wal-Mart was a banner add for the Working Families group.)

This is how I’d put the issues:

  • Can a blog written by someone with an interest beyond merely informing the reader be ever considered something other than promotion for that interest, however well-concealed or unconscious? We get all upset about PayPerPost (rightly so) but far more insidious are blogs that earn their wages in less obvious ways.
  • What happens to a conversation when it turns out to be between people who aren’t who they pretend to be? The conversation, in this case, appears to be between, not two ordinary folk casually mentioning how good Wal-Mart is on their travels, but between the PR company and their employer.
  • When is a spokesperson not a spokesperson? How should we regard Edelman’s Steve Rubel if the one thing he’s not really covering in his blog is the issue about his own company? At the time of writing the story’s been out there for three days already, and not a mention, even a “I can’t comment on this at the moment, let me get back to you.” Given that Steve is well-versed in these nuances, I’d expect him to be quicker off the mark in this case, company sensitivities and procedures notwithstanding. (Update: Steve has now, on the fourth day, posted something.)

Why do I sometimes feel we’re caught in a kind of Groundhog Day in the blogosphere, where we are doomed to repeat ourselves until we learn the lessons our forebears learned? Are we so arrogant that we think we’re smarter? The lessons are:

  • The Chinese Walls aren’t just for the Chinese. They’re for us: to protect us against conflicts of interest, snake-oil salesman, shysters and shills. These walls were built over centuries, and we shouldn’t think we’re so smart we don’t need them, however imperfect they are.
  • You write to promote your company, however tangentially, and you speak for that company. It’s not a cherrypicking job. You can’t just ignore topics you don’t like the look of. If you don’t know what the line is, find out and tell your audience asap. If the story is wrong, get your version out asap.
  • Define the conversation, and the conversationalists. Too much talk about conversations, already. It’s a nice, neutral, inclusive word. But it’s not really. Because most of the time we don’t know who’s talking, and what their real purpose is. When PR firms with clients, or venture capitalists with an interest in seeing their investments rise in value, or whatever, start to get involved they naturally want to steer the conversation a certain way. Nothing wrong with that, except they must accept that they remain on one side of the conversation. They can’t claim to be on both sides. Journalists learned this a long time ago. It’s time we all remembered it.

Killing the Couch-Loving Individualists

Is HP’s anti-telecommuting move just a bid to shed expensive jobs? Thanks to my old chum Tom Raftery (thanks for the accommodation, Tom, and congrats on the baby!) Bernie Goldbach reckons it is. And he makes the important point that customers

considering H-P as part of a core IT package during the next 12 months–ensure you are comfortable about the manner in which your requests for assistance are to be handled. The mid-career people who consult with you about your enterprise computing purchase today may not be on the H-P payroll at the end of the year. If you are working with someone from H-P to construct a robust data centre, I would ask whether that project manager or IT specialist has to move. You need to know whether the people who are upgrading your services will be around to service it next year, regardless of the hour of the day when you need help. When you buy H-P, you expect better than Wal-Mart.

What I probably didn’t stress enough in my morning post was that telecommuters, whether they’re doing the washing, mowing the lawn or riding a tractor during conference calls, will probably be at their computer long after the cubicle drones are on the beach parasailing. Telecommuters, I suspect, tend to be more diligent, even if they may take a nap on the sofa (I’ve just got a new one by the way; $150 for a very nice custom-made number from Ojolali) in the middle of the day. Whether it’s through guilt at breathing non-cubicle air or a heightened sense of professionalism born of independence, telecommuters are probably more productive than their cubicle-bound brethren.

This seems to be borne out by a survey in Australia conducted by Sensis, which reported that only 1% of businesses reported negative impacts from teleworking. Staff, however, told a different story: 13% felt they were actually working longer hours, according to The Melbourne Age. It’ll be interesting to see what happens at HP.

Want Some Wi-Fi In Your Shopping Cart?

Amazing how Wi-Fi has come, in three or so years, from a very obscure and slightly geeky thing to something supermarkets sell, both in terms of devices and services.

Robert Jaques of VNUNet today reports that Linksys “will begin marketing a special line of wireless networking products for home users at selected Tesco superstores in the UK”. Linksys, the report says, is “the only consumer networking vendor in all three of the world’s top retailers, i.e. Tesco, Wal-Mart and Carrefour”.

A piece in this month’s Grocery Headquarters magazine, meanwhile (yes, I read it all the time) says “the supermarket industry is starting to use wi-fi cafes to drive incremental sales and customer loyalty one latte at a time”. Supermarkets in the U.S., the report says, are using their own wireless LANs to offer customers Wi-Fi. Wegmans Food Markets is already testing the technology in two Pennsylvania stores. Quality Food Centers (QFC), a division of Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., offers shoppers wi-fi access in half a dozen stores in the state of Washington.

Soon Wi-Fi will just be something that everyone has, everyone expects, and nobody pays for. Just as it should be.

News: A Positive Spin For RFID

 In case you haven’t had enough of RFID tagstiny devices to track everything from car tires to clothing — here’s a long, positive piece from CNET. RFID, they say, “is changing how retail businesses work and could generate billions of dollars in revenue for software makers.”

 

RFID tags could also create “huge savings for retail operations that currently use a variety of more labor-intensive means to track inventory. RFID also promises to deliver more accurate and detailed information. And as Wal-Mart and other retail giants buy into the RFID concept, software makers and other high-tech companies are salivating over the billion-dollar-plus prospects of this new market.” Interesting, but I think we could see a bit more skepticism.