Monday, May 16, 2011

INDICTMENT OF MANY

Madison, Wisconsin


One of the world’s leading public relations firms agreed to represent the world’s leading social network, Facebook, to surreptitiously criticize its competitor, Google, by convincing reporters to write negative stories about Google’s service, Social Circle. Ouch!

Specifically, according to various media articles published, Burson-Marsteller offered to ghostwrite pieces and submit them under the name of a graduate student at a cybersecurity research center, without revealing to the press that they were representing Facebook.

Well, shame on Burson and shame on Facebook. What Burson did was a clear violation of the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics – and its own. It is dishonest for a public relations firm not to publically reveal whom it is representing to the press or anyone else. Further, it is a violation of integrity to submit articles to the media without designating the source of the pieces. Even if a third party’s byline is used, it is critical to disclose the relationship with that third party … whether it’s a paid consultant to Facebook or a passionate, unpaid crusader fighting a perceived problem with Google’s privacy policy.

I know several members of the leadership of Burson-Marsteller and know they have high standards of ethical conduct; the organization is so large, however, I have to believe this happened somewhere within the firm where the leadership was unaware of the firm’s decision to take on this activity. While Burson publicly (i.e., in the media) admitted that what they did was a mistake (I have yet to see anything from Facebook), how could they not know that taking on this assignment — under the circumstances required) — was a mistake from the get-go?

As one of the two or three largest firms in the public relations industry, Burson’s behavior will inevitably be perceived by some as an indictment of our entire industry as manipulative, sneaky and dishonest – when in reality our business serves a critical communications function, conveying important information clearly, honestly and with transparency. We missed out this time on showing our finer side.

Hopefully, Burson will have a worldwide seminar covering its excellent code of ethics and demonstrating how they are now fully embraced by all its employees, at every level in the company — and invite everyone in the industry who cares to participate.

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