It's been what you might call an “up and down” week for WPP-owned PR behemoth Burson-Marsteller.
On Tuesday, it was named agency of the year at an industry awards show in New York City, in front of co-founder and PR legend Harold Burson and chief executive of Ford Motor Company Alan Mulally, one of holding company WPP's longstanding and largest clients.
But the tense expressions on some Burson executives' faces belied the celebratory atmosphere and gave a clue to the firestorm already erupting over the Facebook anti-Google fiasco into which the agency had embroiled itself.
The details are covered extensively on this site and have spread exponentially elsewhere, but the essence of the story is that Burson-Marsteller execs, including a couple of senior journalists turned PR pros, propositioned third-party bloggers, tech experts, and opinion-formers to write think pieces criticizing privacy issues around Google's Social Circle service. The agency promised to sell in the pieces to high-profile media outlets but wouldn't reveal who it was working for.
One of those contacted, Chris Soghoian, blew the whistle on the ruse and made it public online. Facebook was forced to fess up that it was the client behind the fiasco and the rest is passing into ignominious PR history.
In not disclosing Facebook as its client, Burson engaged in activity that contravenes industry guidelines and is considered unethical. The practice of selling in negative ideas like this might not be everyone's cup of tea, but as long as you are clear who you are working for it is considered acceptable, especially in the political world Burson-Marsteller is particularly familiar with. But the rough and tumble world of DC politics is not necessarily the same as the milieu of business and corporate reputation.
Eyebrows were also raised at Burson's statement once it parted company with Facebook as a client. In saying “The client requested its name be withheld on the grounds it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light” and “This was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined,” Burson could be perceived as throwing Facebook under a bus in a bid to absolve itself from blame - and one wonders what the WPP agency's other clients thought of it.
It is disingenuous to blame journalists turned PR pros who might not be familiar with good practice. And whose decision was it to accept the assignment in the first place? To say training and standard procedures broke down is an understatement.
The sad fact about the affair is that it gives those in the national press and some other trade titles who love nothing better than to characterize PR as a profession of spinmeisters and dark arts practitioners an excuse to sharpen their knives and unload their bile and vitriol.
That is extremely unfortunate, though utterly predictable, and doesn't paint an accurate picture of the modern brand of communications and senior strategic counsel practiced by the majority of the industry nowadays.