Paul Holmes 13 May 2011 // 11:04AM GMT
A couple of years ago, Rachel Maddow suggested that “when evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” But the latest incident in which the firm finds itself embroiled involves not so much evil (I’m not sure the stakes are high enough for that) as naiveté. In the eyes of some clients, that might be a worse sin. For anyone living in a cave, USA Today reported on Tuesday (the day we named Burson as our North American Agency of the Year for 2010) that BM executives had attempted to pitch privacy bloggers on a story critical of Google’s privacy protections. But one of the privacy experts BM contacted—Christopher Seghoian—published the firm’s e-mail pitch to him, along with his conclusion that the firm was “making a mountain out of a molehill.” There was much speculation about the identity of the client, which was ended the next day when a Daily Beast piece by Dan Lyons outed Facebook, which was apparently attempting to draw attention away from its own privacy issues. The story made the front page of The Guardian, which revealed that Facebook and Burson had now parted company. And this morning’s Wall Street Journal, contains a quote from PRSA chief executive Rosanna Fiske making it clear that BM’s activities on behalf of Facebook in this case were deceptive and in clear contravention of the organization’s standards. I’m not sure I have much to add to the conventional wisdom on this case, but I do have some thoughts. First, while there is absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out genuine problems at rival companies, PR firms that engage in this kind of activity need to do two things. First, hold themselves to the highest standards of accuracy—lying about someone else’s shortcomings is a graver sin than exaggerating your own virtues; and second, be absolutely transparent about the identity of the client paying them to point out these problems. If the media reports are accurate, the executives in this case fell short on both these counts. Second, the main reason to abide by the two rules above is that you cover your own ass in case a reporter or blogger decides to do what Seghoian did in this case. The approach to bloggers in this case was not only deceptive, it was also incredibly naïve. As Lyons says: “Here were two guys from one of the biggest PR agencies in the world, blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops.” Even the most junior PR person should know better than to put anything in an e-mail message that you wouldn’t want to see published. And third, to those rival agencies taking a little bit too much pleasure in Burson-Marsteller’s discomfort, there should be an element of “there but for the grace of god…” in any response to this incident. The past few years have shown that even the best firms are prone to lapses of this kind, and it would be an arrogant PR agency CEO who believed this could never happen at his or her agency.