Richard Edelman and Steve Rubel have final responded to the Wal-Mart flog incident with an appropriate mea culpa. They both insist that they could not respond to the storm of criticism sooner because they didn’t have all of the facts — and without all the facts, they couldn’t CONTROL the conversation. Both Richard and Steve took their lumps in the comments on their blog posts, and responded selectively to commenters.

I find it interesting that my post on this incident spent 12 hours at the top of TechMeme, got tons of traffic, with 20+ other blogs linking in, 30+ comments/trackbacks — by any reasonable measure a meaningful node in the “conversation.” Yet there was no attempt by anyone at Edelman to engage in conversation here. No comments. No emails. The only inbound communication I received was an email from Wal-Mart Watch about their post on the issue. That strikes me as a missed opportunity — not just with Publishing 2.0, but with every other blog that offered commentary. But more importantly, it shows just how hard REAL conversation is.

Real conversation would have mean engaging the issue BEFORE having CONTROL of all of the facts. It would have meant engaging each INDIVIDUAL blogger, not just broadcasting a single mea culpa post. But that’s a lot of HARD WORK.

So I actually don’t fault Edelman for not engaging in real conversation — there are shareholders, lawyers, and other loyalties that come before lofty notions of conversation. Steve himself said it best:

I work for a big company and my loyalties first and foremost are to Edelman. Sorry. I would give up this blog before I gave up working for them.

But I do blame Steve and Edelman for a lot of the hype around how easy this is all supposed to be. And I fault Steve for blithely criticizing other large corporations caught in similar tough positions. The thing about conversation is people have a way of remembering what you said — and let’s not forget that blogging is a permanent public record.

As I observed back when Steve was criticizing Dell’s corporate blogging efforts:

Dell could have been “brave” and taken on the tough issues right out of the gate.

But they chose not to. Why? Because they don’t “get it,” as their blogging critics suggest? Or is it because they are extremely cognizant of the risks inherent in a corporate entity, beholden to shareholders, creating a platform to talk to customers — many of whom are VERY unhappy?

If Edelman wasn’t cognizant of the risks, they sure are now.

Despite the risks, I don’t think that companies should be afraid of conversation — they really have no choice. As Edelman experienced, the conversation will take place with or without them. But they need to realize that it’s really, REALLY DIFFICULT to engage in conversation with the aim of achieving a desired outcome, especially when all isn’t right with the world.

What corporations should eschew is the hype around blog marketing, especially from PR/marketing companies that tell you how easy and fun it will be. Setting a blog is easy. And blogging can be fun. But trasparently stewarding a large corporate brand is never going to be a walk in the park.