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. 


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