Thursday, May 12, 2011

On Burson-Marsteller, Facebook, and ethics in PR

News broke this week about global PR giant Burson-Marsteller pitching untrue stories about how Google's Gmail Social Circle feature breaks FTC rules on users' privacy. 

According to various reports, two Burson-Marsteller account executives, one a former CNBC reporter and the other a former political columnist, attempted to persuade influential bloggers and mainstream media to report on (ultimately false) allegations of Google's violations of privacy rules -- and refused to name their client. (The emails between Burson-Marsteller's John Mercurio and blogger Christopher Soghoian, whom Mercurio was trying to persuade to write an Op-Ed on the topic, are posted here.)

Honesty and transparency in PR: the rules are clear

PR has been fighting its own bad PR for at least a generation. An article on the story in AdWeek included the following infuriating (to me) statement: "While sleazy PR firms trying to spread scandalous stories is old hat..."

Ethical, moral, honest practitioners of public relations face this kind of slag on a regular basis, thanks to unethical, immoral, dishonest practitioners of backroom dealings who've come before them and branded their work "PR."

I've heard it myself from former journalists, in the context of joking around. I'm in PR, so I must be all about spin, right? I'm likely a very good liar, right? I must be, I'm in PR!

No, not right. (And on my cranky days, not even funny.) But what can we do about it? It's not as though those impressions are baseless; PR has gotten that reputation because people speaking on behalf of organizations, in the role of "public relations," have taken actions that have brought that reputation on us all.

Here's what we can do: prove that reputation wrong. 

The best thing PR people can do to combat PR's bad rep is to work honestly and ethically. Nothing is more persuasive than personal experience: most journalists, whether or not they buy into the "PR people are liars" storyline overall, have worked with PR people who deal in good faith, and whom they trust. The more above-board PR people they deal with, the less they'll be inclined to believe the old story.

Many PR professionals like me join professional associations like the Canadian Public Relations Society, the International Association of Business Communicators, and the Public Relations Society of America, among others. Each of these associations has a code of ethics or of professional business conduct that details the requirements for its members to conduct business ethically, honestly and transparently.  You don't need to belong to one of these associations to perform ethically, of course -- but by actively participating in them, you make a commitment to your clients that your work will follow their publicly-stated standards.

The more real PR people consistently deal openly and ethically with their audiences, the less that "sleazy PR firm" image will endure.

At least, I hope.

A point worth making

As I followed this story on Twitter yesterday, I saw a Tweet from British PR educator Heather Yaxley that said something I had been thinking.


(Thank you to @jgombita for re-tweeting it to her followers, including me.)

It's not lost on me that the PR practitioners in question are both former journalists. I wonder whether they also joked about how sleazy PR people are, in their journalism days. 

Even the big guys have to follow the rules.

Here is Burson-Marsteller's statement, posted earlier today on its website.

"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."

Without its reputation, the product of integrity and ethical dealings, a PR firm can't be successful in building relationships with any of its audiences. Professional PR people almost have to be more honest than everyone else -- or they'll be out of work.

Burson-Marsteller has a big job to do. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

GolinHarris gives CreComm a warm welcome and great advice

This morning, 35 CreComm students (and two instructors!) were welcomed at the global headquarters of PRWEEK's 2010 Large PR Agency of the Year, GolinHarris.
Alyssa and Alexandra:
"There's no such thing as a typical day in PR."

Assistant Account Executives Alyssa Bronikowski and Alexandra Kassel gave us a quick tour of GolinHarris' Chicago headquarters at the corner of The Magnificant Mile and the Chicago River, gave us a great overview of the agency's work, and then discussed some recent campaigns they've worked on for clients including Magnum Ice Cream, Breyers, and the Dow Live Earth Run for Water, among others.

They walked us through GolinHarris' different practice areas, and talked about the various activities account staff will often undertake over the course of a day.

Advice for aspiring PR professionals

Alyssa and Alexandra shared some excellent advice for PR students wanting to approach their internships and first jobs with the right mindset for success.

1) Always be looking for solutions.
In PR, you always have to be finding ways to make things work. If you're a "well, I tried but it didn't work out... and now I'm just going to wait for someone to tell me what else to do" kind of person, PR probably isn't for you. A lot of success in PR depends on your ability (and willingness) to dig until you find the information you really need -- whether it's the best vendor for chocolate jewellery, the right media monitoring solution, or the audience profiles that will ensure you reach the right people with the right messages for your campaign.

2) Be organized.  
In a PR agency (just like in the corporate world), PR people face different tasks and challenges, with different factors always changing, and oftentimes for multiple clients, every day. If you don't have your act together, you won't last long.

3) Write, write, write.
So much of what we do in PR depends on strong writing. We write materials for our clients; we write plans that must persuasively outline our strategies; we write proposals to win our clients' business in the first place. The more you write, the better you'll be.

4) Stay on top of new ideas in your profession.
Our hosts recommended our students sign up for The Skinny on PR (click to sign up), a free e-newsletter from PR News that focuses on the PR profession; subscribe to PRWEEK; and always be watching what other organizations are doing. Your education in PR never ends.

At the end of the session, Alyssa and Alexandra gave out their business cards and generously invited our students to contact them if they had any questions about internships, launching their careers, or even projects they might have in school next year. They were excellent hosts, and we were very thankful for the opportunity to learn from them.

Thank you so much, Alyssa, Alexandra, and everyone at GolinHarris -- and to Gini Dietrich of Arment Dietrich, who helped set us up for our visit there. It was a fantastic experience!