Pro-Wal-Mart Travel Blog Screeches To A Halt

What do you call a phony blog that's actually a front for a huge corporation? A "flog"?

A pro-Wal-Mart blog called "Wal-Marting Across America," ostensibly launched by a pair of average Americans chronicling their cross-country travels in an RV and lodging in Wal-Mart parking lots, has been reduced to a farewell entry. One of its two contributors was revealed to be Jim Thresher, a staff photographer for The Washington Post.

The blog, launched Sept. 27, was profiled in this week's issue of BusinessWeek, which exposed the site as a promotional tactic engineered by Working Families for Wal-Mart (WFWM), an organization launched by Wal-Mart's public relations firm Edelman. WFWM paid for the RV and all travel expenses, rerouted the trip's original plan, and plastered a logo on the RV's side. Though a banner ad announced WFWM sponsored the site, it did not divulge Wal-Mart paid for the couple's RV, gas, food and other expenses.

Thresher contributed both photos and promotional commentary to the site--one entry describes a Wal-Mart employee "going the extra mile." Another plugs the store as "the nation's largest supplier of organic milk ... by shopping at Wal-Mart [customers] eat healthy while stretching [their] food dollar (paying $3.48 for a half gallon of organic milk is one way)."

Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor for The Washington Post, says Thresher's activities are a violation of the paper's policy for freelancing for special interests. While Thresher "did have a conversation with an editor [prior to the blog's launch], he did not make clear to his supervisor" that he would be working in a promotional capacity.

Although the bloggers were acknowledged only as Jim and Laura on the "Wal-Marting Across America" site, BusinessWeek identified one as Laura St. Claire, a freelance writer. Her partner, Jim, however, declined to provide his identity, "to protect his employer," the story says.

That protection lasted about 48 hours. In less than two days, the watchdog organization Wal-Mart Watch identified him as Jim Thresher, a 25-year employee of The Washington Post and a professional photographer.

"This is so foolish on so many levels, it makes me scratch my head," says corporate blogging consultant Debbie Weil, author of "The Corporate Blogging Book." Everyone involved violated the basic rule: Be transparent. If you're found out, it comes back as a slap in the face."

Calls to Thresher, Wal-Mart and Working Families for Wal-Mart were not returned. A woman who answered the phone for WFWM, who said she could not be quoted, identified herself as an employee of Edelman. Wal-Mart has struggled to address critics as well as the new media space, and recently shut down its MySpace competitor The Hub after only 10 weeks. Users complained the site was too promotional and had too many fake user profiles.

"People are experimenting to see what works--where does the truth matter," says Jordan Frank, vice president of marketing for Traction Software, the Providence, R.I.-based corporate-blogging technology company. "This will clearly show how Wal-Mart is doing something to skew truth. That's never good."

Late Wednesday, Wal-Mart Watch posted a freelance piece from 2000 written by St. Claire for The Washington Post that raved about Costco, a competitor to Wal-Mart's sister big box store, "Sam's Club."

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