Categories: Crisis management / Media issues / Trust and reputations

14 May 2011


When “friends” fallout over “dirty tricks”

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.

13 responses to “When “friends” fallout over “dirty tricks””

  1. Edward says:

    Journalists do not like being considered the puppets on the end of PR strings, there will always be a full lack of trust between PR and journalism – a good thing too. However the journalists often need PR to generate the material for the stories.

    A code of conduct would be nice, however, PR companies require journalists to relay their own industry’s PR and this code to the public. Can journalists report fairly on this I wonder, and is it really worth the effort? A single satirical phrase and the whole effort is wasted.

    A real tango!

  2. […] When “friends” fall out over “dirty tricks,” by Paul […]

  3. Peter Walker says:

    There are two things about Switzerland pertinent to this debate the air is clear and Nestle have their headquarters there so it ought to be possible to smell the coffee. Where’s the fuss, never mind BM’s track record, this is the reality of the world of the so called citizen journalist. The land of the first ammendment just can’t cope with the blogger, Tweets, Wikis or anything, they say that hasn’t been subject to verification by two independent sources and subjected to editorial scrutiny. Unless, that is, it is from so called freedom fighters or rebels or anyone taking pics on their mobile phones and purporting to show things that put people, countries or groups we don’t like in a bad light and provide an excuse for bombing UN recognised governments into oblivion.

    Then there are all those who are famous in their own lunchtime and need to feed their own self serving frenzy, Sara Palin included. Picking up on their self serving twaddle without checking is OK event by the first ammendment purists.

    Get a grip fella’s. BM, if idiots are prepared to pay you take it… you won’t keep anything about your part in the underhand quiet for long, who knows you might be able to start a whole new Division – digital disinformation inc. What we really need in a free information society is some real competition so Edelman, H&K, et al go to it.

    In a pre-digital world Auberon Waugh said that the best thing about tabloid media, the yellow press was that you could suspend belief at the veracity of the content and just enjoy the writing. Let’s treat bogs tweets and Wikkis in the same way. Who knows it might improve the quality of the writing.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Peter, thanks. I agree with you about the challenges of social media, and also about the importance competition.

    As I see it, BM were arguably inept, clumsy and unlucky, rather than unethical. I also think that the fuss this has all caused will make it harder rather than easier to talk honestly about the real-world realities of PR…but it will also act as a lesson to PRs to be more street-wise.

  5. […] Seaman – When “friends” fallout over “dirty tricks” May 16th, 2011 | Category: CIPR, Ethics, Journalism, Media, PRCA, Public Relations blog […]

  6. […] Facebook/Buston-Marsteller smear campaign story. Some people disagreed vehemently, others (more) agreed wholeheartedly. Thankfully, no-one sat on the […]

  7. Steve Earl says:

    Thanks Paul.

    The biggest challenge an enhanced, standardised, modern and potentially effective code of conduct would have is actually getting any PR people to read it. And then understand and adhere to it. It would be great to see it happen. And policed. And never abused. And never exploited in the pursuit of mining grey areas.

    Unlikely though. Where there is commercial competition there will always be reptuational conflict, and there will always be PRs willing to take risks to get ahead. We just all need to be clear on where the draw the line.

  8. Paul Seaman says:

    Steve, I’m minded to agree with you. Codes of practice are often hostages to fortune.

    BM got trapped by their own code of conduct which left them no wriggle room. As it stands, if I had one billion dollars to donate to charity and wanted to give it anonymously to a good cause and to pay Burson Marsteller to promote how the money was spent, they’d have to turn down the work. Or they would have to break their own code (again). In my view, transparency is a much over-used word. Yes, we have to decide where to draw the line, and we have to be able to defend our actions when challenged.

  9. Gavino says:

    “BM were arguably inept, clumsy and unlucky, rather than unethical.” Paul, surely it must be unethical for BM to break an ethical code, especially its own. Sure, on another level they did what many other PR firms would have done, but that doesn’t make it any less ethical. Also, let’s be honest. The code exists primarily as a marketing tool – it is there to help them get business. Now this tool is of little or no value. So they have shot themselves in the foot big time. Inept, yes. They might have advised their client that this approach was high risk, given that it would focus government regulators on their own business. As one columnist wrote, it is like Ford arguing that GM should be more heavily regulated. That is only going to backfire and get them both caught up in the regulator’s net. I wonder if a more ethically focused PR firm turned down the account first, or proposed a different and more ethical approach. And I wonder how much BM got paid for this. It all goes to show that ineptitude resides at the top of BM and in the dynamic rapid growth sectors of the economy. They are not as smart as they think they are…

  10. Paul Seaman says:

    Gavino, your challenge to me about Burson Marsteller’s ethical position is well put. Having adopted the code, breaking it was unethical. Your point is accepted. However, when I was talking about ethics I was saying that there’s nothing whatsoever unethical in principle about withholding a client’s identity. Sure, Burson Marsteller is hoisted on its own petard, and that’s their problem. I agree also that there were better ways of tackling their brief from Facebook than seemed to have occurred to the BM executives, who I guess had little experience of tackling controversial issues.

    If BM had more guts it would ditch the marketing flannel (and its useless code, which is a straightjacket) and defend its consultants and its reputation robustly. But instead it has retreated behind apologize, reform and move on (ARM PR) barriers and become advocates of cringe in the process. In short, it appears to agree with its critics, at least in public, and has left itself almost without a defence. That’s not smart PR, for sure.

  11. Gavino says:

    Yes, and it has always struck me that these PR giants are flimsy houses of cards. They can charge their bloated prices for what they pitch as sophisticated PR strategies only so long as their reputations are intact. They rely almost completely on human capital as their chief asset. If the people at the top are this bad, what does it say about the firm as a whole…?

  12. […] itself or good for business or both. I am interested in the merits of that sort of scheme. (See: When “friends” fallout over “dirty tricks”.) But I also admire the PR firms that say they don’t want to be part of the public […]

  13. […] When “friends” fall out over “dirty tricks,” by Paul […]