Burson was caught out in a covert anti-Google smear campaign on behalf of Facebook when it reached out to a US blogger who promptly published the email conversation between him and the Burson executive. In its outreach, Burson had refused to name its client. The mainstream media has been all over this since then along with much commentary and opinion about the fiasco from people in the public relations industry.
While such commentary and opinion will no doubt continue, Burson isn’t saying much following its formal statement on May 12 and the odd tweet here and there, other than that it won’t fire the two executives concerned.
Instead, says Burson, both will receive training in ethics.
That’s a very interesting approach to an issue that is arguably an actual crisis where not only is Burson’s reputation under assault but also its credibility as knowledgeable and skilful practitioners in public relations is being questioned as a consequence.
Now the firm’s coming across as a bit clueless in how it’s addressing collateral issues (I almost said ‘damage’), eg, deleting negative comments from its own Facebook page.
In my view, it is admirable that the firm clearly supports the two men at the heart of this fiasco and is willing to publicly say so; and is equally willing to state that, in effect, they will get some help to regain that straight and narrow path of best practice as enshrined in ethics codes such as that of the PRSA, never mind the WPP Code of Business Conduct (Burson Marsteller is ultimately owned by WPP) as explained on the firm’s website – check this statement in particular:
The WPP Code of Business Conduct sets out the expectations we have of our people.
[...] We will not undertake work which is intended or designed to mislead, including in relation to social, environmental and human rights issues;
We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on.
But is this enough from a reputation point of view, both for Burson Marsteller the firm and for the two individuals themselves? Is such unethical behaviour deeply ingrained in the firm? You have to wonder, especially when you see scathing commentary such as this excerpt from a lengthy post yesterday by Terence Fane-Saunders, past Chairman and Chief Executive of Burson Marsteller in the UK, entitled "Furtive and Creepy":
[...] It has been suggested that at least some of the information that B-M was hawking to its contacts was not merely secretly sourced, but also actually false and misleading. I have no idea if this is true. For all I know, that’s negative PR from the other side. Once the paranoia box is open, its difficult to close it again. But that’s not really the point here. In this grubby little attempt to seed negative stories without disclosing their source, they were denying the media (and that means the public, and that means you and me) the opportunity to assess the value of those stories. If you don’t know the source, you can’t judge motive. In this case, source and motive were absolutely central to the story; so central, I would suggest, that the story itself becomes incomplete and misleading if that information is withheld.
Throughout its history, the PR profession has struggled with the damage caused by its grubbier practitioners – the PR hacks, the press agents, the fly-by-night corner shops who live by false promises, operating in the shadows, spinning half truths or downright falsehoods. But that struggle , generally, has been a successful one. And it is firms like Burson-Marsteller who deserve the credit for establishing the profession as an ethical, valuable and often admirable part of the management process. They have led by example. But if senior B-M professionals are now seen to be operating like shadowy, backstreet spin merchants, you have to wonder about the continuing value of that example.
I think candid comments such as this from credible opinion-formers are hugely damaging. While I believe Burson Marsteller can look forward to reputation recovery over time – clearly depending on what they do and how they do it now and in the coming weeks – one foundational thing their CEO Mark Penn can and ought to do forthwith is come out with a frank, clear and genuine apology for the actions of the two executives, not the sanitized corporate-speak of the formal statement the firm put out.
And maybe ethics training for those two isn’t enough – the firm needs to be seen to be addressing this and any hidden thoughts by anyone (such as clients) along the lines of Terence Fane-Saunders’ worries he stated in his post.
Burson Marsteller could take a leaf out of Edelman‘s book by examining how that PR firm addressed their own kerfuffle with their client Wal-Mart back in 2006 by:
- admitting to and apologizing for their unethical behaviour,
- mounting a training programme for employees at all their offices worldwide,
- publicly communicating their plans and their actions, and
- engaging in conversation with anyone who has an opinion about the issues and solutions.
There’s no time to spare in living up to that accolade.
- On Monday May 16, Shel Holtz and I will be discussing this kerfuffle in episode 599 of FIR The Hobson and Holtz Report, our weekly business podcast. If you have an opinion you’d like to share – text or an audio comment – just send it to us at email@example.com, or tweet us a link, and we’ll include it in the show. [Update May 16] Podcast published: The Hobson and Holtz Report – Podcast #599: May 16, 2011