As a public relations agency, we adhere to the ethics guidelines set forth and agreed upon by our industry. Not only do we owe this to the PR trade but to our clients and journalists, who are bound by their own respective industry ethics. The key word here is ethics, a concept central to effectively representing clients and building relationships with journalists.
So it is unfortunate that Burson-Marsteller ignored its commitment to PR ethics. The mega-agency created a whisper campaign to get top-tier media outlets, including USA Today, to run news stories and editorials berating Google’s privacy. Former CNBC news anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio, both recent Burson-Marsteller hires, were active in the media pitching – until they were asked which client they represented. The radio signal then went silent.
Burson-Marsteller even approached an influential blogger, Chris Soghoian, offering to assist in writing a Google-bashing op-ed and promising to place it in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico and The Huffington Post. Again, when asked about the client involved, the radio signal went silent. So Soghoian denied the request and posted the entire email exchange.
After the email exchange went public and USA Today reported that many claims in Burson-Marsteller’s pitch were false, The Daily Beast’s Dan Lyons became suspicious and eventually outed Facebook as the anonymous client. Describing the scenario, Lyons wrote:
Here were two guys from one of the biggest PR agencies in the world, blustering aroundSilicon Valleylike a pair of Keystone Kops.
Here are two former journalists, working for one of the world’s largest PR firms, making false claims and refusing transparency. Only after Facebook admitted its role, did Burson-Marsteller release the following statement:
Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.
The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media. Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.
Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.
Too little, too late. As Media Bistro points out, Burson-Marsteller should have refused the campaign:
For publicists, one of the many lessons of this story is that, as a PR professional, sometimes you have to discuss alternatives or decline a client’s request when the work is improper.
One the six core tenets of the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code is “honesty.” PR firms are expected to “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented” and “avoid deceptive practices.”
If Burson-Marsteller had followed this tenet, been upfront about its client and used solid facts when pitching, the story would have ended quite differently (avoiding the black eye the PR industry wears today). As PRSA points out on its blog, “the ironic thing is that Burson-Marsteller got exactly what it wanted: a big article in USA Today talking about privacy concerns with Google’s services.”
– Chuck Brown