Burson-Marsteller and Facebook: Lessons learned again

by Josephson Institute on August 9, 2011

In this post, originally published on the Arthur W. Page Society Blog, Josephson Institute board member Tom Martin comments on the news (reported by The Daily Beast last May) that Facebook hired top PR firm Burson-Marsteller to smear Google.

I have been following with great interest the recent coverage of Burson-Marsteller’s ill-advised anti-Google campaign for its client Facebook. I plan to use it as a case example for my strategic communication class in the fall. Some blog posts I’ve seen have criticized those in the academic community for opining on the case, claiming that we are naïve in not understanding that tactics like this are common in the PR field. To me, that is the underlying problem. Yes, it does happen. A lot.

The fact that one of the leading firms in our business participated in this questionable practice is disheartening, but not surprising. Many of its global competitors have acknowledged similar transparency failures in recent years, most notably Edelman, Fleishman-Hillard, and Ketchum. I teach their cases in my class as well. The heads of all of these firms are Page members; I know them well and I have done business with them in my tenure at both ITT and FedEx. Executives with these PR firms serve on the Advisory Council at the College of Charleston and we are proud to have them. They and their firms do a great deal of good in this world.

What I will be discussing with my students is the purpose of being transparent, and the risks of not being so in this new media age. Why should we as a profession work doubly hard to convince our clients and our companies of the need for transparency? Because it is the only way to preserve and enhance the trust we have with our stakeholders—customers, prospects, employees, investors, and regulators.

Everyone recognizes that much of this trust has been depleted in the last two decades and we may never fully get it back. But by attacking our competition in deceptive ways, we don’t enhance our own reputation and that of our clients, we damage it even further. The defense that is being used, even in Burson’s own mea culpa, is that “Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.” Perhaps. But if someone whispers in your ear something bad about another person and you later find that the whisperer was being paid to do so, I think the whispered message loses more than a little steam.

The other reason we must be transparent is that there are no more secrets anyway. The Internet in general, and social media in particular, has taken away all the privacy screens in the dressing room. We must win our arguments on their merit rather than with once-clever tactics that no longer work. Just what are some of those tactics?

  • Fake surveys that conveniently get us to the conclusions our clients need rather than legitimate findings that will benefit our audiences.
  • Celebrity spokespeople who don’t reveal that they are being paid for their appearances or opinions.
  • Industry associations and trade groups that don’t clearly reveal the sources of their funding.
  • Advocacy web sites that don’t prominently display their sources of financial support.

The list could go on, but you get the picture.

What I will ultimately discuss with my students, who aspire to starting positions in this industry, is that they must examine their own values in considering how and with which firms they will begin their careers. At times they will have to demonstrate personal integrity and courage in advising a client or a boss that a tactic being proposed isn’t truthful. It will not be easy for them to do so. The Page Society and its members can do them a great favor by continuing to endorse the Page Principles and the concepts of honesty, candor, transparency, and integrity in how we lead this profession. For us to be taken more seriously as counselors, I think it is a stand worth taking.

Tom Martin Tom Martin is Executive-in-Residence in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston and member of Josephon Institute’s Board of Governors.

 

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