Burson-Marsteller didn’t have to/shouldn’t have handled Facebook engagement the way they did

Black-eyed SusanThe most disturbing news of the past two weeks has been the revelation that a legendary public relations agency, Burson-Marsteller, tried to run an advocacy public relations campaign for client Facebook that was intended to spread negative opinion articles about Facebook’s real or imagined rival, Google.

It’s a black eye for those of us who practice principled, ethical communications on behalf of our clients. And it’s time for us to say, “Enough!”

Apparently, B-M tried to get bloggers and journalists to write articles about privacy issues Facebook believes are raised by some of Google’s offerings in social networking. The plan backfired when a journalist did his job, asking questions about who was funding the B-M pitch.

Companies often advocate for particular positions against the advocacy of their competitors. The difference here is that the Burson people working this assignment tried to conceal the identity of their client from the writers they approached.

In this highly connected age, you can’t keep a secret like that for very long — which makes me wonder what made them even try — and the journalist who didn’t get a good answer to the “who hired you?” question published the email correspondence with B-M detailing the stealth pitch.

I spent a long time working in the corporate PR trenches, and I continue to be appalled by practices like this. In the mid 1980s, as a corporate communicator for Conrail, I worked on a campaign of grassroots advocacy arguing that Conrail ought to be given a chance to stand as an independent company.

We were engaged in a political battle with the Reagan Administration over the privatization of Conrail.

Never once did we try to conceal our identity in our advocacy.

Many of the op-ed articles we promoted carried the bylines of Conrail senior executives. Some of them even carried mine. We got criticized for opposing the will of our majority stockholder (the US Government) but we never got accused of misrepresenting or hiding who we were. You can read more about this campaign in my 1995 article in Public Relations Strategist magazine.

Refusing to identify the client behind a pitch, or trying to conceal it, clearly seems to be violations of the canons of ethical behavior that our profession has tried to promote.

The blowback from this fiasco damages the reputations of all PR practitioners, because the public assumes that this is standard PR practice.

It is not, but those of us who practice public relations with standards as our guidepost need to redouble our efforts to educate clients and the public about right behavior.

Rosanna Fiske, APR, Fellow, PRSA
Rosanna Fiske, APR, Fellow, PRSA

I was very pleased to see that my friend Rosanna Fiske, APR, Fellow, PRSA, the highly principled 2011 chair of PRSA, took a strong stand against Burson’s behavior, both in media interviews and in an op-ed for PR Daily. I have been pleased to see hundreds of practitioners weighing in with their own disdain through blog comments and even posts to Burson’s Facebook page.

Education in ethical behavior and professional practice

But we need to do more to demonstrate that not all public relations is about going to parties, “spinning” or manipulating the news, or about placing products in the hands of celebrities. We need to do a much better job of explaining how we communicate on behalf of clients and companies we work for.

We need to start at home, by educating our younger professionals about the importance of standards and the importance of credible preparation for a PR or communications career.

Despite our best efforts to advocate for ethical standards as an industry, there are still many people who call themselves PR professionals who don’t even belong to one of the major professional organizations in our industry like the Public Relations Society of America or the International Association of Business Communicators.

It was shocking to learn from Rosanna’s op-ed that only 14 of Burson’s 2,200 employees are even members of PRSA and theoretically subject to that organization’s Code of Ethics and Professional Standards. I suspect that there are even fewer members of IABC at the agency. (IABC’s Code of Ethics is here.) For an organization that promotes itself as a global leader in the public relations industry, it is deeply disappointing that B-M doesn’t have a core cultural commitment to professional development for its employees that involves belonging to their professional organizations. Why not?

A further problem the industry must confront is that our ethical codes are merely aspirational. There is no enforcement of any kind for violations, only the kind of public scorn that comes from disowning the behavior of miscreants.

It is deeply disturbing that Burson’s response to this scandal has been to announce that the two practitioners involved will be given “additional ethical training.” These people were in highly compensated senior positions with B-M. One of them was a former network news journalist. They should have known better. They should have stood up to the client and said “No.”

They should have been role models for junior staffers. The message this debacle sends to young practitioners is that there are no consequences for bad behavior.

It’s important for the public to know we communicators have these kinds of standards available to us. Once they demand that the profession adheres to these standards, we can gain the kind of credibility and trust that right now we only can wish we had earned.

Even practitioners who are not members of PRSA and IABC can pledge to abide by the codes published by these organizations. Since I started my consultancy in 2004, I have specifically written adherence to the PRSA Code into my contracts with clients, and I make it a point to advise them how to communicate with their intended audiences in ways that are consistent with that code.

Accreditation demonstrates a commitment to standards

Secondly, practitioners should demonstrate they are serious about being recognized by their peer organizations as a professional. That means preparing for, and taking, the credentialling examinations offered by PRSA and 12 partner agencies (the “Accreditation in Public Relations” exam, or APR) or the “Accredited Business Communicator” credential offered through IABC.

There is no excuse for individuals calling themselves public relations practitioners to not demonstrate this modest level of professional competence — and there is no excuse for people holding the credential to not understand ethical behavior, since it is a core component of both credentials.

What do you think?

If you have committed to a Code (IABC, PRSA or other) in your contracts, or if you feel strongly about credentialling for public relations professionals, leave a comment here and let me know!



  1. Steve,

    I agree with your comments and join the chorus of those insisting on change with the big agencies. What also bothers me is that few agency heads, or senior executives, have spoken out on this issue. It concerns me that they are not willing to step out and say — wow, this is wrong — but instead wait for others to do the dirty work, or even refuse to discuss the issue.

    From my perspective, it could easily become a teachable moment for Burson and its staffs. They could take a leadership position by promoting a class on the professional ethics of public relations that all their employees have to take within the next 30 days and that they offer to public relations professionals…free of charge. Doing this would make me, and probably others, feel quite differently about Burson and the staff they have hired.

    Another opportunity for larger agencies is in teaching journalists who are becoming PR professionals about our industry. There is so much more to what we do besides media relations but I see companies with a complete fascination for former journalists. Without training they will not, in my opinion, be able to be effective professionals.

    Thanks for addressing this issue on your blog.


  2. Steve,

    I agree with you and Mary Barber. When a journalist asked B-M who was the “real client” and who was paying for the campaign, I could imagine a really long pause, but no answer. I was not there of course, but when there is no answer, or any hemming and hawing many professionals fill in the blank with his or her own conjecture or perhaps the truth comes out after investigation. By that point the damage is done!

    The PR industry has many great practitioners but a case like this gives responsible practitioners and agencies a black eye – something that reinforces the notion that PR is about spin and we sell snake oil.

    Did B-M do the right thing by sending the two individuals to additional ethics training? I am not in position to answer that.

    Regarding big agencies vs smaller ones and ethical practices, it’s up to all of us to NEVER cover up who the real client is.

    This incident also probably has international implications since most prospects or clients don’t want to be in that harsh spotlight.

    Joe Carleo, APR
    Advanced Language and Media Services

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