B-M’s Bad PR Adventure, Ethics & Lessons

by PR Coach on May 13, 2011

Friday the 13th look at Bad PR practices

Ignominious! It’s a great word for Friday, May 13th. It’s also a perfect way to describe recent worst practices by mega PR agency Burson-Marsteller. Caught with its hand in the unethical PR cookie jar, they join a list of shameful agency practices that bring disrepute on all ethical practitioners.

If you missed the story, Burson-Marsteller was caught trying to create a whisper campaign againgst Google for undisclosed client Facebook. Two former senior journalists, now B-M consultants, attempted to get influential reporters to write about privacy issues. When a journalist outed them, suddenly B-M, its client Facebook and lack of PR ethics became the story.

Let’s recap some of the notable, bad PR agency practices that have made us cringe recently:

  • Burson-Marsteller: Shame on BM for undertaking a whisper campaign against Google by its undisclosed client Facebook. To add insult to injury, the media pitches were made by two former senior journalists.
  • Dewey Square Group & Goggans, Inc: What can you say about an agency and its subcontractor who carried out a campaign of manufactured protests and phony letter writing to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission for a client? Not much, but CFTC has referred forged comment letters proposed derivatives trading rules to the Justice Department for investigation.
  • Insurance Industry’s Deadly Spin: Author and former CIGNA PR exec Wendell Potter blows the whistle on the insurance industry’s charm initiatives and disinformation campaigns against healthcare reform supported by big PR agencies.
  • Reverb Communications: Phony technology product reviews can ruin your day, your agency reputation and make clients crazy. The FTC ordered the PR and marketing company to remove the fake iTunes reviews.
  • Livingston Group: polishing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s image has been lucrative for this DC public affairs group. 2009 fees were an estimated $1.3 million and it was forced to retroactively register several of its clients.
  • Dezenhall Resources and Ketchum – hired by Sasol and Dow and all sued by Greenpeace for “spying” and other activities against the environmental group’s advocacy work.

The list goes on… endlessly.

I know, I know. We shouldn’t focus only on the bad without mentioning all the good works that PR pros do for clients, causes and constituents around the world.

Yes most PR people are ethical and do great work every day. I’m proud to be a PR pro but the fact is we can’t bury our heads in the ethical sand either.

The controversy over Burson-Marsteller’s ill-fated and unethical PR campaign against Google for client Facebook is well documented already (initial coverage below). It’s destined to be a mainstay case study in PR ethics courses for years.

Yes, there is a set of unenforced PRSA ethical guidelines but there are no PR police to sic on to public relations bad dogs. I was glad to see PRSA’s leader speak out promptly in the PRSA newsletter PR Say though and in media interviews including The New York Times:

“It’s simple,” said Rosanna Fiske, chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America. “They [Burson-Marsteller] took the road of misleading and not disclosing who they were representing. In the essence of the public relations code of ethics 101, that’s a no-no.”

The best PR pros can do is to acknowledge and speak out against such unethical PR practices.

We should talk to the media when they look to industry leaders for comment and opinion. We can live our professional lives to high standards. We must teach our PR students and talk with young practitioners about ethics.

Thinking about flogging, astroturfing, badvocating, brandwashing, greenwashing, whispering, dirty laundrying or any other negative PR campaign tactics?

Here’s a word of advice. Don’t! You’ll find it much more difficult to explain yourself than to take the extra time, energy and smart thinking to do what’s right in the first place.

Thankfully, we still live in an era where media scrutinize and report such business, government and public shenanigans. Social media may well become an even stronger equalizer and watchdog through groups like Wikileaks and public disclosure on Twitter, Facebook and many other social media channels.

Ironically, if you were a conspiracy theorist, you could say B-M has done a great job of focusing media and public attention on the privacy issue for its client Facebook.

The social media is abuzz. Mainstream media are writing about the story. Just not the way B-M intended. Facebook may still have achieved its goal of shining a light on Google practices and I suspect B-M has a good case for its fees and results. Or does it?

I’m not buying that one! Agency lack of ethics and bad client PR strategies have overshadowed the privacy issues. Nor is Facebook itself without reproach on privacy concerns. This “strategy” was doomed from the start.

PR Lessons from This Debacle?

There are several lessons to learn from this bad PR story:

  • Ethics matter.
  • Do you have a code of ethics? Are all employees aware and following guidelines?
  • Not every client/project is worth taking on, regardless of the retainer.
  • Clients, pick your strategies and your PR agencies very carefully.
  • Know your business ROI – return on integrity (or lack of).
  • You’re accountable for your PR agency’s and employees’ actions.
  • You’re responsible for your clients and your counsel to them.
  • You are always “on the record.”
  • Your agency pitch is never “off the record” and PasteBin is a useful tool.
  • Toothless as it is, PRSA does have a Code of Ethics you should follow.

The real question for Burson-Marsteller is whether this project was worth the fees and the “return on integrity.” Oh and B-M? Here’s the link again to PRSA’s Code of Ethics.

Wonder why the Bad PR… Bad section of my website is one of our most popular? There are always new stories to share about PR gone wrong. Let’s continue to shine a light on bad practices as well as the good work PR pros do.

If you want to read some of the important coverage of this PR Fail, dive in below. We’ve highlighted some of the telling quotes from each article to help bring this Friday the 13th PR horror story alive.

And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter or get our RSS feed directly to your favorite reader.

Photo Credit: Fazen via Flickr

Author:  Jeff Domansky is Editor, The PR Coach

Articles [Updated daily for new developments]:

B-M Email Pitch Posted Online by Journalist [PasteBinMay 3
Journalist Christopher Soghoian:
“Who is paying for this? (not paying me, but paying you)”
Burson-Marsteller’s John Mercurio:
“Thanks for the prompt reply. I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet. But all the information included in this email is publicly available. Any interest in pursuing this?”

Google deflects PR firm’s attack of Gmail privacy [USA Today] May 10
Burson last week stepped up a whisper campaign to get top-tier media outlets, including USA TODAY, to run news stories and editorials about how an obscure Google Gmail feature —Social Circle— ostensibly tramples the privacy of millions of Americans and violates federal fair trade rules.
“Soghoian derailed Burson’s efforts by posting the full e-mail text of Mercurio’s pitch — along with his rejection — on the Internet. After Goldman’s pitch proved largely untrue, he subsequently declined USA TODAY’s requests for comment.”

B-M Pitch on Behalf of Unnamed Client Raises Ethical Questions [PR NewserMay 10
We received this statement from the firm [Burson-Marsteller]: “The situation that led to the USA Today story is highly unusual and does not represent standard practice at Burson-Marsteller. We regret that it was not handled well and we are reviewing it thoroughly.

PR Pros: Haven’t We Learned Anything About Disclosure? [PRSA – PR Say] May 11
PRSA CEO Rosanna Fiske in PR Say newsletter:
“This story could have ended much differently, assuming B-M had revealed the client it was representing, been upfront with reporters about its clients’ intentions and relied on facts to support its argument.
As a profession, don’t we learn from our mistakes?

B-M Says Facebook Assignment “Should Have Been Declined” [PR Newser] May 12
B-M statement: “…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.

Facebook Busted in Clumsy Smear on Google [The Daily Beast] May 12
“Somebody, it seems, hired Burson-Marsteller, a top public-relations firm, to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers, urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy. Burson even offered to help an influential blogger write a Google-bashing op-ed, which it promised it could place in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post.”

Facebook Hired PR Firm to Target Google [The Wall Street JournalMay 12
“Rosanna Fiske, the chief executive of the nonprofit Public Relations Society of America, said Burson-Marsteller’s lack of disclosure is “deceptive” and violates her organization’s ethical standards.
“When you are following misleading practices, the message is tainted,” she said. Consumers “wonder what else have they done that perhaps I shouldn’t trust.”

Facebook Loses Much Face In Secret Smear On Google [TechCrunch] May 12
“But secretly paying a PR firm to pitch bloggers on stories going after Google, even offering to help write those stories and then get them published elsewhere, is not just offensive, dishonest and cowardly. It’s also really, really dumb. I have no idea how the Facebook PR team thought that they’d avoid being caught doing this.”

Facebook paid PR firm to smear Google [GuardianMay 12
“Cordasco confirmed to the Guardian that “the assignment” was now terminated and that Burson-Marsteller was no longer working with the social network. Facebook declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian.
Suspicions in Silicon Valley were aroused earlier this week when two high-profile media figures – former CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman, and John Mercurio, a former political reporter – began pitching anti-Google stories on behalf of their new employer, Burson-Marsteller. The pair consistently refused to disclose the identity of their client.”

Facebook Seeks to Downplay Campaign Against Google [The New York Times] May 12
“It’s simple,” said Rosanna Fiske, chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America. “They took the road of misleading and not disclosing who they were representing. In the essence of the public relations code of ethics 101, that’s a no-no.”

Facebook uses Public Relations service to point out Google flaws [Deseret News] May 12
“That was followed by a confession from Facebook, according to Forbes), saying it was the client behind the “PR firm’s clumsy attempt to plant a damaging story about a Google social feature that’s almost two years old.”
But Facebook is attempting to alleviate the negative attention this news could bring to it, The Wall Street Journal reports.”

Facebook-Google Rivalry Intensifies with PR Fiasco [Associated Press] May 12
“Facebook hired a prominent public relations firm to try to plant stories harshly criticizing Google’s privacy practices. The efforts backfired when the firm approached a blogger who not only declined the assignment, but also went public with the exchange.”

Facebook’s Embarrassing Secret Campaign To Discredit Google Revealed (UPDATE) [The Huffington PostMay 12
“To make matters worse for Facebook, USA Today revealed that Burson had also been engaged in a campaign to get media outlets, including USA Today, to run stories on how Google’s Social Circle feature is a threat to privacy. Spearheading the campaign were former CNBC anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio.”

Facebook’s Stealth Attack on Google Exposes Its Own Privacy Problem [WiredMay 12
“Meanwhile the blogger released a damning transcript of his exchange with the sleazy folks from Burson….This is a stunning story for a number of reasons….consider this excerpt from the letter Burson’s operative named John Mercurio wrote to gin up an attack without Facebook’s fingerprints on it. “Google’s latest plan,” he wrote, “totally disregards the intimate and potentially damaging details that could be revealed, including sexual orientation, political affiliation, personal connections, etc…”
This is ironic since, in my experience, Facebook user profiles with such information are much easier to view that they were in the early days of the service.

Kedrosky Says Facebook’s Google Strategy Not Surprising [Washington Post/Bloomberg News] [Video 9:12 min]  May 12
Paul Kedrosky, Bloomberg News: “Making stuff up about your competition is a time honored tradition…spreading information about your competitors as literal or metaphorical dumpster diving has really been well established in the Silicon Valley…at the top [Facebook] is still a relatively tone-deaf organization”

PR FIRM: Facebook Asked Us To Do Something Sleazy And We Never Should Have Done It [Business Insider] May 12
“Burson-Marsteller has also acknowledged fault, saying “The assignment.should have been declined.” So it will also be interesting to see how, if at all, Burson disciplines the executives involved, including former CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman.”

Shame on you, Burson Marsteller [David Reich] May 12
“Shame on Burson Marsteller for putting a stain on the Public Relations profession!  You, of all agencies, should know better.”

Facebook Issues Statement [Huffpost TechMay 12
“No ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended. Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles—just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.
You and your readers can look at the feature and decide if they have approved of this collection and use of information by clicking here when their Google account is open: . Of course, people who do not have Gmail accounts are still included in this collection but they have no way to view or control it.”

Sleazy PR Firm Throws Scummy Facebook Under The Sordid Bus [TechCrunchMay 12
“After we just fed you that bullshit excuse, here’s the real deal: we shouldn’t have done this. Or perhaps more accurately, we shouldn’t have agreed to terms under which we were likely to be caught. Next time we take one of these assignments, we’ll simply throw the client under the bus immediately so we look like the good guys to the journalists and public. Or we’ll cover our asses better. And ask for more money.
Scummy. Sleazy. Sordid. A true class act.”

Facebook, You’re Going To Need A Better Answer For Your Slimeball Stunt [TechCrunchMay 12
“In their ideal world, Burson-Marsteller would have taken this, pitched it to a group of journalists/bloggers, stories questioning Google’s tactics would have been written, and Facebook’s name would have only been brought up as the victims.
Instead, the opposite happened. Karma is a bitch.”

Facebook admits to engaging in smear campaign against Google [KTNV] May 13
“That’s not to say concerns about Google and user privacy are unwarranted, but this particular scheme has backfired on its maker and the egg is now squarely on Facebook’s… errr… face.”

Facebook, Foe of Anonymity, Is Forced to Explain a Secret [The New York Times] May 13
“Doing this anonymously is an obvious contradiction of Facebook’s oft-stated values,” said David Kirkpatrick, the author of “The Facebook Effect,” a book about the company. “It feels hypocritical.”

Facebook-Google rivalry intensifies with PR fiasco [APMay 13
“It was also a good lesson on privacy in an age in which few things stay out of the public eye.
“Odds are that if you are writing about something controversial, or doing something controversial, someone is going to leak it,” said [Larry L] Smith, the crisis-management expert.”

Facebook Smeared Google? C’mon! Making too big a deal out of a public-relations firm’s stupidity. [SlateMay 13
“Every reporter approached by PR firms knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies. If PR people were being paid to push the truth, they’d be called reporters.”

The PR Hacks Behind Facebook’s Google Smear [The Daily Beast] May 13
“PR people in Silicon Valley said they weren’t surprised to see Facebook spreading negative information about Google. But they were shocked—and delighted—by how clumsy the Burson guys were.”

Burson-Marsteller, PR Firm Facebook Hired To Smear Google, Scrubs Negative Posts on Its Page [Huffington PostMay 14
““That was wrong,” a Burson representative told Wired.com in a call minutes after this story went live. “We’ll be reaching out to Jessica, and we’ll let her put her post back,” the representative said, adding that the company’s Facebook page has received “a lot of profanity.””

Facebook’s Sly-Dog Aspirations [TechNewsWorld] May 14
“Rule Number 1 in the PR dirty-trick playbook: Don’t get caught. It’s common practice for a firm to hire a PR outfit for a little image manipulation. And the way Burson Marsteller apparently went about doing that on Facebook’s behalf wasn’t illegal. But once it was exposed, it certainly didn’t make Facebook look good. Meanwhile, Google makes music, Chrome makes it to notebooks, and Microsoft makes off with Skype.”

Facebook’s anti-Google efforts get muddier [CIO] May 15
“Apparently Burson-Marsteller can’t get enough bad press, as it was caught removing criticism about the debacle from its Facebook page.
Wired was able to snag a screenshot of a comment criticizing the firm before it was removed.”

How Burson-Marsteller Can Emerge From Its Facebook PR Fiasco [WebProNews] May 16
“Now the firm’s coming across as a bit clueless in how it’s addressing collateral issues (I almost said ‘damage’), eg, deleting negative comments from its own Facebook page….
But is this enough from a reputation point of view, both for Burson-Marsteller the firm and for the two individuals themselves? Is such unethical behaviour deeply ingrained in the firm? You have to wonder, especially when you see scathing commentary such as this excerpt from a lengthy post yesterday by  Terence Fane-Saunders, past Chairman and Chief Executive of Burson-Marsteller in the UK, entitled “Furtive and Creepy.”"

Hyperbole meets Hypocrisy: Googlegate [POP! PR Jots] May 16
“Have I ever undertaken a whisper or FUD campaign while working for a client? I am not at liberty to answer that, but anyone that has been in the industry – especially technology – has done a whisper campaign of some sort. Or gone on background to a reporter at some time (and yes, fed information about competitors while on background). And if you’re smart, you think of ways to position your company over the competition and feed that information to friendlies.”

Sir Martin Sorrell on Facebook’s Campaign Against Google [FOX News video 6:44 min] May 16
Sorrell (Chair, WPP Group, owner B-M): “That was not right, what Burson did and they admitted as such….They’ve withdrawn from the assignment. It conflicted with Burson’s policies and our own policies and that disciplinary action has been taken in relation to it….The data that was provided was all public domain data. All that they effectively were doing was drawing attention to public domain data that is there….The offending issue was that it was anonymous. That’s against Burson’s policies and the WPP Group code of conduct….The assignment should never have been taken in the first place.”

Smear Campaigns Have No Place in PR [PR Breakfast ClubMay 17
“I won’t try to get too high and mighty about this topic, but I will say this: Smear campaigns and unethical non-disclosure of clients and/or clients’ intentions are most certainly not an integral part of PR. That type of work is unethical and against most recognized global standards of ethics in the profession, including the PRSA Code of Ethics.”

PR Pro’s Guide to the Burson-Facebook Scandal, Whisper-Gate [PR20/20] May 19
Laurel Miltner offers an excellent overview and links on the debacle including media, bloggers and PR pros.

Slime-slinging: Flacks vastly outnumber hacks these days. Caveat lector [The Economist] May 19
“So PR flacks with clients in those industries now put much effort into targeting such online influencers. But as Mr Soghoian has amply demonstrated, these non-traditional journalists do not necessarily feel obliged to play by the rules.

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