Oh, what a tangled Web…
Another week, another ethics scandal here in Silly Valley…
Last week we were all a-Twitter about a PR debacle featuring Facebook and PR firm Burson-Marsteller each throwing mutual blame on the other for a smear campaign that was undertaken against Google. The campaign in question? Planting stories with the press about Google invading people’s privacy and encouraging influencers to dig into the company’s privacy policies in an attempt to divert some of the negative attention related to privacy away from themselves. Burson got caught with its pants down when a blogger exposed them and The Daily Beast broke the story, accusing Burson of starting a whisper campaign against Google.
This is ugly on so many levels, not the least of which is how it undermines the already tenuous relationship that we as PR practitioners have with reporters. We have a symbiotic, but sometimes tenuous relationship with each other already—and for a supposedly “world-class” PR firm to be caught planting smear campaigns on behalf of a client doesn’t help those of us who do honest work on behalf of our clients on a daily basis.
This one should be pretty simple, folks. Don’t spread mistruths, don’t work with companies who want to hire you just to muck rake against others. I’m sure every PR firm in Silicon Valley and elsewhere can tell you stories about potential clients that have come to them with “projects” that are not on the up-and-up. I know we’ve gotten calls like that before—and we’ve turned them down. And if you do have the lack of principle to take such an assignment, at least own up to it when you’re caught (and you will be caught eventually). And then don’t throw the client under the bus to deflect blame. (Both Facebook and Burson are now trying to throw each other under the bus, each blaming the other for the incident—in the words of my 10-year old self: “How gross.”)
I’d like to think the majority of us who do practice PR for a living go about promoting our clients and their products in an ethical way. Does that include presenting them in the best light possible? Sure, but I’m not about to lie or spread rumors about other companies on behalf of a client.
It’s an industry cliché that PR is all about “relationships,” but when it comes down to it, it often is. When we are fortunate enough to be able to build relationships with the reporters we work with, it’s because we’ve put a lot of time and effort into doing so and because those reporters know that we can be relied upon to give them the stories they need. They trust us to do that. As with any relationship, trust is key. Breach that trust by lying or cheating or not being reliable and there goes the relationship.
As embarrassing an episode as this is for our industry as a whole, it’s both Burson-Marsteller and Facebook’s reputations that will ultimately suffer. I suspect Facebook will recover faster—Mark Zuckerberg has already proved himself to be a Teflon executive despite the company’s controversial beginnings and Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of him as a sniveling weasel in The Social Network. As TechCrunch’s MG Siegler points out, Facebook’s deflection of this situation is smart and they’ll come out relatively unscathed because the company is a bell weather of the second Internet boom and a part of the fabric of the tangled Web. This despite the fact that the company has an all too well-documented habit of not always doing the right thing.
Instead, it’s the PR firm that will likely end up taking most of the heat for the client, which is unfortunate because each party is equally to blame. For Burson, it’s going to take a long time until reporters look kindly on pitches they receive from anyone with a Burson-Marsteller address again. For a firm whose purpose is to manage reputations, they should have known better—theirs will be stained now for quite some time.