It has been handbags at dawn between Facebook and Burson Marsteller (BM). The former say they never asked BM to organise a covert campaign undermining Google; the latter say they should never have accepted Facebook’s brief which stipulated just that.
This playground spat was sparked by some leaked emails to the blogosphere. It seems Facebook wanted to traduce Google’s new Social Circle offering for violating users’ privacy rights without being identified as the shit-stirrer. The cause of the media “outrage” was an upfront admission from BM in an email trail that:
“I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet.”
One supposes the reason for non-disclosure was that Facebook’s reputation on privacy matters is arguably worse than Google’s. BM added, however, that the full facts of the case they were advocating were already in the public domain. In other words, they were inviting somebody to follow up some pointers.
So, never mind that BM has apologized for their role in this; I’ll criticize that in a moment. I’m going to argue that their two PRs behaved pretty well (see here for leading PR Steve Earl’s similar opinion).
In this instance, BM were dealing with somebody who knew the agency were being paid by a third party for PR work. The PR agency also believed that their potential advocate supported the views they sought to spread. They outlined some lines of argument which were already in the public domain and not unreasonable. The blogger they approached was advised to check BM’s facts for accuracy and for the degree to which he agreed with them. What does it matter who was paying BM? Would it have mattered if it was the Devil? I think not.
Sure, BM broke their own ethical code of practice. They did not walk the moral talk they spout. But the worst thing about this whole episode was playing the blame game. Questioning a client’s integrity is not a good image for our trade. The denial from Facebook also did the firm no favours. Facebook is now, anyway, once more the main target of the media’s angst about the “betrayal” of user privacy rights.
The best response from both parties to the exposure of their relationship would have been simply to admit to it. Silence might have also sufficed. Unfortunately, my beloved “so what?” would have been problematic given how BM was flouting its own code of conduct.
But let’s not let the media off the hook. Their outrage is bluster. The media rarely tells their readers which story was sparked or parked by a PR working on behalf of a particular client. Readers are mostly left in the dark about the who, the what and how of the birth of a story. If it were not so, the names of PR agencies, political insiders and their staff would be all over nearly every story published.
Quite rightly, the best media – just like the best PRs – look to the accuracy, veracity and fairness of what they say, write and advocate to establish their credibility.
The fact is a writer might have all sorts of interests and prejudices – including commercial – when he states this or that opinion. He might have shares, or old grudges, or – yes – a payment directly from a party to write a particular piece. Does it matter? The answer has to be, up to a point and depending on the circumstances. For instance, a paid employee writing about their firm cannot pretend to be an independent bystander. An analyst or financial journalist recommending a share as a buy, and who has a personal financial motive for doing so, must declare it openly etc..
Nevertheless, as a reader, I am most interested in a writer’s opinion. If I find it interesting (well-argued, peculiar, entertaining, whatever), then I’m likely to be influenced by it. If I see a writer’s byline, I will be drawn to it if he was interesting in the past. Their new bit of writing will either continue to amuse, or fail to, on its merits. I can usually judge those myself. But sometimes I depend on the authority of the writer’s editors for my sense of the writer’s merits. That’s where the reputation of the likes of The Economist or WSJ etc. matters most.
So let’s keep this real. BM did not really sin. Our industry should come clean about how it and the media really functions and about on what premises trust and integrity really rest.