Industry pros react to Burson, Facebook controversy

In the wake of Burson-Marsteller's recent PR fumble, soliciting bloggers to place hit pieces about Google on behalf of Facebook without revealing it was working for the social media giant, PRWeek commissioned opinions about the controversy from senior members of the PR community.

In the wake of Burson-Marsteller's recent PR fumble, soliciting bloggers to place hit pieces about Google on behalf of Facebook without revealing it was working for the social media giant, PRWeek commissioned opinions about the controversy from senior members of the PR community (we made sure we told them who we were and what we wanted the comment for upfront...).

Careen Winters, EVP corporate communications, MWW Group:

“A successful PR campaign that achieves business results can be simplified into a formula: trust, plus relevance, equals action. Trust alone will get you admiration, but not action. This week we've seen that relevance without trust achieves action - just not necessarily the action you wanted.

Advancing a client's point of view is a legitimate assignment, even when it challenges another big, respected company - such as the situation with Facebook and Google. And what could be more relevant than privacy?

The real loser in the 'outing' of Burson's questionable approach is the PR industry - which already struggles with labels like 'spin doctor' suggesting that we aren't worthy of trust, respect, or high stakes assignments.

There are three things professionals can take away:

1)    Clients should be the story, not their agency. Trying to be stealthy - especially when you're working with such high-profile companies - is only going to raise interest in who is behind it.

2)    It's hard for Goliaths to be David. When two big brands do battle, expect both to walk away a little bloody. And if you don't apply the highest standards to that assignment, your agency could end up being the collateral damage.

3)    Your grandmother was right - never say (or email) something you wouldn't want to see in the newspaper.”  

Rosanna Fiske, chair and CEO of the PRSA:

“Campaigns waged against a competitor can be conducted ethically, but in order to do so, all cards have to be laid out on the table. That includes the client's name, its motivations/interests, all of the facts — not assertions or opinions — that are being called into question by the client and other pertinent details that ensure the public's best interest remains intact. Campaigns that fail to do so could be deemed unethical, and more broadly, 'smear campaigns.' As PR professionals, we not only have an ethical responsibility to protect the free flow of accurate and truthful information, but to do so in a responsible and forthright manner.”

Jenny Moede, EVP North America, Waggener Edstrom:

"Let's face it, all PR is competitive. Whether we're trying to win customers or partners, win discussions on Capitol Hill, or win hearts and minds with an improved image, companies and agencies are competing for something and against someone. Our responsibility within this competitive landscape is transparency and integrity."

Aaron Kwittken, CEO and managing partner, Kwittken & Company:

“American Idol judges often criticize contestants for being 'pitchy.' The Burson/Facebook gaffe this week, was well, a 'cringe-y' moment for the industry.
A cloaked pitch to an expert privacy blogger. Really? Ethics and transparency issues aside, I'm sorry, but PR pros, and the world's largest social network, should know better when communicating in an environment where no conversation is sacred and transparency and disclosure is king.
Does this incident warrant the development of a broader set of 'rules of engagement' for PR professionals beyond even what's already published by our self-governing bodies? On the other hand, is it reasonable or even possible to try and regulate common sense and good judgment? I think it comes down to good parenting and admitting and apologizing for when you make mistakes – the same advice we give our own clients.  
We're all still waiting for that apology.”

Alan Kelly, CEO & founder, Playmaker Systems LLC:

"Before we channel even one priestly platitude about the year's most entertaining PR debacle, there are some practical lessons to be learned.

1)    PR is a competitive function. Not a compliance job. Not a forum for story-telling. Not exclusively. And while we'd all hope for better from our peers at Facebook and B-M, this is more a case of incompetence than malpractice.

2)    If we're going to engage in any form of communication beyond the utterly factual transmission of things, we should understand that the transition from information to interpretation is not binary. It is gradual and spectral. It is not a matter of on-and-off, black-and-white, punch-or-no-punch. Communicators have myriad options by which to position, re-position, and de-position their respective agendas and rivals thereto. Perhaps at Burson-Marsteller they were acting on a hyper-competitive client's demands for immediate and punishing results. That's my bet. Or perhaps they lacked the experience, patience, or budget to appropriately expose the short-comings or even wrong-doings of Google and its content-scraping ways. Either way, they chose crude weaponry over fine instruments and maneuver warfare over diplomacy.

3)    Just as we saw in the Department of Education/Ketchum matter a few years back, this case is as much about attribution as ethics. The failure to identify a client's identity is a basic error. Had inquiries been answered honestly and immediately – even proactively – there'd be no 'PRgate' to navigate.

After all, PR is a competitive function. We all know it. It's just not in our interest to give away house secrets."

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