On September 27, 2006, a fake blog known as “Wal-Marting Across America” came into the spotlight. It featured the journey of Jim and Laura and their adventure from Las Vegas to Georgia. They traveled in an RV (recreation vehicle) and stayed in park-for-free Walmart store parking lots. While at these different Walmart locations, the couple would interview employees about their jobs at that particular location. Every Walmart employee that Jim and Laura interviewed, from executives to store clerks, loved their job. Too good to be true, right? It was.
Jim and Laura weren’t married, but had been living together for over eight years and had three children together. Throughout the blog series, Jim would not reveal his last name or his identity. He claimed that he wanted to protect his employer, and would only state that he was a professional photographer. Laura St. Claire is a freelance writer who worked with the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Laura told Business Week that while hiking in the Grand Canyon, they liked the idea of driving around in an RV and then stumbled upon a Walmart store with a parking lot full of vehicles.
“We thought there was a convention going on there, but soon found out that Walmart lets RVers park for free,” said Laura.
The couple thought it would be a good idea to rent an RV and visit their children, one attending college in Pennsylvania, the other in North Carolina, and save some money by parking for free at Walmart stores. Laura supposed that she could also write about her experiences for a publication that caters to RVers. Instead, the couple decided to get approval from Working Families for Walmart, an organization that Laura had signed up for to show support.
Working Families for Walmart was an organization that was created by Walmart’s public relations firm, Edelman, to counter criticism from union-funded groups such as Walmart Watch and Wake Up Walmart. Working Families made the decision to pay for Jim and Laura’s entire trip. Their route was altered slightly, but the group paid to fly the couple to Las Vegas where their RV was waiting for them. Working Families would pay for all of their gas, set up a blog, and on top of that, pay Laura for her entries.
“We were planning a trip on our own dime, and we were thrilled to have a sponsor who would do all our legwork,” said Laura.
Walmart says that they were a main income source for Working Families of Walmart, but never released how much they had given to the organization.
So, where was the problem? Not once, anywhere, was the fact that this was a PR stunt, with paid bloggers, disclosed. Readers were lead to believe that the tour had no relation to Walmart and it was just two people who decided to start to make a blog about their experiences. Once the secret was out, this story blew up the PR world.
It is unfortunate that Edelman, the PR company working with Working Families of Walmart at the time, did not realize that this same idea may have worked successfully if they had announced it as a public relations campaign and not something put on by an independent media outlet. Although the rules for blogging are not as set in stone as those in different kinds of media, especially in 2006 when blogging was much newer than it is now, this use of deceptive techniques doesn’t do anything to win over consumers.
Other articles in this series: