When the large public relations firm Edelman went into a protective silence instead of engaging its critics over a pro-Wal-Mart blog, it reminded me of HAL, the computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey.
HAL was just doing his job. But we learn in the next movie (or book, for Arthur C. Clarke fans) that HAL's psychotic behaviour was a natural reaction to being given two contradictory orders by its programmers.
Edelman has repeatedly stated it wants to uphold transparency and honesty in its word-of-mouth marketing and social media activities - both for itself and on behalf of clients.
Compare that to the military, man-the-barricades mentality that is ingrained in the corporate culture at Wal-Mart. Add a prevailing attitude in U.S. politics/marketing/culture that if you just repeat a lie long enough, the public will accept the lie as truth.
It's a very typical situation where the client doesn't want to operate in the real world because the rules of behaviour are inconvenient.
The public relations agency's job is to educate the client and show them how they can gain from behaving in a less anti-social manner. There are many, many compromises to be made on both sides before that kind of transformation can take place (if that's even possible).
The blog was one of those compromises, and president Richard Edelman has acknowledged "the cross-country tour that Edelman designed" was done in a way that violated the agency's stated principles.
His apology was a good step toward clearing the air. I attribute the fact that it took him several days to respond to the criticism of bloggers to the HAL syndrome. It's hard to respond to complaints about your actions when you're just doing what the client wants.
See Shel Holtz's Edelman and the One-sided Conversation, and a few dozen other posts - IR Daily, twopointouch, Open (finds, minds …, hyku | blog, JD on EP, Marketing Begins At Home, Joe Duck, PR Squared, Scobleizer, The Post Money Value, Blog Business Summit, Message, Publishing 2.0 and A View from the Isle (links via Techmeme).
Update: Edelman's internal investigation has turned up two more fake blogs. Surprise, surprise - both related to Wal-Mart. That just reinforces my impression that the client is driving this particular wagon.