Acres of newsprint and myriad computer bytes have been devoted to the ignominious episode involving Burson-Marsteller and its abortive attempts on behalf of Facebook to seed discussion about privacy issues and Google's Social Circle feature.
The ethical aspects of this case, in which Burson didn't disclose the client it was working for, have been widely covered. In short, the PRSA and other industry ethical guidelines state you must disclose who you work for when carrying out such activities.
But the other surprising aspect of the fiasco was simply the sloppy PR practice it uncovered. The email pitch from former political journalist turned Burson PR executive John Mercurio, subsequently made public by its target, blogger and privacy expert Chris Soghoian, made for excruciating reading.
First of all, why put such a "sensitive" pitch in writing and open yourself up to potential exposure. Even if you do say who you are working for, surely it is good practice to confine such pitches to a phone call or one-to-one conversation where there is no physical trail.
Second, from the tone of the email and salutation - "Mr. Soghoian" - it was clear Mercurio didn't know Soghoian. It seems crazy to punt such a proposal to someone who is not a good contact. Clients buy into PR agencies' excellent existing contacts with key thought-leaders and opinion-formers in areas they want to target. (Incidentally, the email also mistakenly referred to Social Circles instead of Social Circle.)
The email set further unfortunate events in motion, including an ill-advised public statement from the agency that many perceived as throwing the client under a bus.
Burson-Marsteller then compounded its problems and extended the story's lifespan with botched responses to negative feedback on its Facebook page, deleting posts, hastily constructing a "Facebook policy," and not engaging in dialogue with its audience. None of which would bode well for a client hoping to get effective advice on its social media strategy.
The sad part: the whole industry is tarnished by such stories, which are absolutely not a fair reflection of work that is truly helping clients achieve strategic and communications goals.