How Burson Marsteller can emerge from its Facebook PR fiasco

fbbmThe "dirty tricks" kerfuffle surrounding Facebook and Burson Marsteller that erupted a few days ago surely couldn’t get worse for the beleaguered PR firm – but it did.

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:

  1. admitting to and apologizing for their unethical behaviour,
  2. mounting a training programme for employees at all their offices worldwide,
  3. publicly communicating their plans and their actions, and
  4. engaging in conversation with anyone who has an opinion about the issues and solutions.

It’s very unfortunate for Burson Marsteller that all this has arisen just after they won the Holmes Report award for US Agency of the Year 2011.

There’s no time to spare in living up to that accolade.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Jonathan Marks

    As a writer, analyst and influencer I get these kind of offers to mention products or support a particular cause all the time. I ignore them because they always come out in the end and that damages my reputation as much as the PR firm. They have tons of cash to smooth over the mess. Such a revelation could ruin my line of business where trust is paramount.

    I agree with Neville that Burson Marsteller have suffered a major dent to their reputation, at least for the next 6 weeks or so. If they are clever, they will follow the Edelman example, come clean, apologize and move on. But judging from what they have done so far, I don’t think they’re that bright. Which is why I won’t forget Burson Marsteller. And I will be watching.

    • neville

      I see no problem with being approached by PR firms who would like you to talk about their client’s product or service. I get approaches quite a lot; some I’m happy to accept, others not (the ones I decline are usually because I simply have no interest in the product/service or the company – suggesting perhaps that the PR hasn’t done enough research before approaching someone like me).

      In all cases, transparency is paramount. When I write a post or a review here, I always set the context for why I’m writing it, saying at the outset that it’s the result of an approach by such-and-such a PR firm. That way, the reader can make a better informed judgement on reading what I write, to determine my motive as Terence Fane-Saunders noted in his own post when commenting on outreach.

      Like you, I’m keeping a close eye on this issue to see how it plays out. I really do hope B-M don’t go into denial mode. And that they actually do have some smart people addressing this matter.

      • Jonathan Marks

        I think your transparent approach is the right way forward. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I don’t object to getting information releases, especially if it gives relevant information to a subject I am researching. But the kind of pushy publicity, especially the ones that suggest that I need to arrange a chat with their CEO at some upcoming conference (e.g. IBC in Amsterdam) go straight in the e-bin.

  2. Claire Thompson

    It will be interesting to see how Facebook handles this too. They’ve been tight-lipped, but although their users haven’t been too affected, they are suffering at a corporate level.

    The missing piece for me is why they felt they needed to do this, rather than going directly to the media and briefing out their own advances. We’re putting our house in order, and urge others to the same would surely have been a better approach?

    What would you be suggesting to Facebook now?

    • neville

      I agree with your comment re the missing piece, Claire. From what I’ve read mainly in the US media, it seems that the two execs concerned are old-school ex-journalists so maybe their approach to outreach in the social space just doesn’t work.

      There’s a bigger issue here, though, isn’t there? It’s about ethical behaviours as enshrined in the firm’s own code of business practice. Maybe it is about leadership and management where the need to constantly demonstrate best practice to employees by example has been lacking. I’m not suggesting B-M’s leadership has engaged in any unethical behaviour themselves, just that perhaps what’s missing is their leadership and own best-practice behaviour that employees can see and emulate.

      I think they can learn a great deal from Edelman’s example.

      • Claire Thompson

        Ethics is a minefield, and perhaps one for another time over a coffee.

        Bit disappointed that the PR industry’s responding here by saying these tactics are OK, though. There’s a difference between positioning against competition and briefing against them – one makes sounder business sense. I can’t be the only person who’s seen the fuss and gone taken a look at Social Circle again?

        I guess it’s up to each and every company to decide how they operate, but this was just bad strategy, and I’m not buying that senior people weren’t aware that Facebook had approached them. Any PR company in the world would have been celebrating a client win like that, and viewing it as a major new business opportunity (Do a good job on this and….) Someone had to sign off the programme, and the contract, and agree the strategy.

        BM has form on bad practise scandals (See ‘greenwash’). I’m hardly surprised that so many PR people want to rebrand as communicators/similar when this happens in the same week as they’re awarded as the best in the PR business. I’m proud of what I do for, and achieve for, clients. From my perspective, good PR starts with what goes on inside – if you don’t want someone to know you’re doing something, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it!

        The BM code isn’t adequate because it’s subjective:
        […] We will not undertake work which is intended or designed to mislead […] – it could be argues that they weren’t misleading the journalists, just guiding them to someone else’s dirt pile.
        […] We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on – and *maybe* ‘we’ decided that it was worth the risk to get FB as a client.

        And no, I don’t think it has anything to do with the BM guys being ex-journalists either – it was a current journalist on a traditional paper who broke the story, and it’s the grounding in journalism that made them ask about sources.

        It has everything to do with BM not offering their client sound counsel (don’t do this), which has nothing to do with medium, but a lot to do with approach and ethics – which is the minefield that takes us nicely back to that cup of coffee. :-)

  3. Alan P

    I suspect the reason they didn’t fire the 2 B-M flacks is that this was all done way above them, and making them the fall guys would have been even worse if they then talked.

    What I don’t know is:

    (i) How endemic this sort of black hat PR id (ie was this just a case of being caught)

    (ii) At what sort of level in Facebook this would have been comissioned.

    • neville

      Hmm, a possibility, Alan, one I very much hope is not the case at B-M (I just can’t believe it would be).

      As I said to Claire in my earlier response to her comment, it seems to me that the behaviour of the execs concerned just doesn’t fit with the way things are done these days. If B-M believe those two men are worthwhioe and can continue with the firm with some ‘respositioning’ of their behaviour, then that’s great.

      As for Facebook, well, what can you say? According to some of the media reports, they spelled out to B-M what they wanted done and how. That’s the moment the B-M execs should have made the decision on their next step which, according to their own code of business practice, would have ultimately led to declining the assignment.

      Not sure what is says about Facebook, though, and their own business practices.

  4. Paul Seaman

    Let’s get real. The media’s outrage is humbug. BM did not do much wrong other than allow its code of conduct to deny it much wriggle room. The worst of it was that the client turned on the PR agency and the PR agency turned on the client. If the PR trade is ever going to defend its reputation it needs to become much more robust in explaining (without embarrassment) what it does on behalf of clients. Here’s my take, which is completely different to yours:

    • neville

      I see very little media ‘outrage’, Paul, just reporting – with some of it actually objective. I see lots of commentary and opinion, some of it by journalists. Very little of it by PRs (that I’ve seen) objective.

      Whatever. Because of the actions of two employees, Burson Marsteller’s reputation is tarnished. What they did, the way their actions have played out so far and how B-M has behaved should trouble any PR practitioner who gives a damn about ethical conduct in his or her profession whether formal codes of practice or conduct exist or not.

      B-M UK’s past Chairman and CEO Terence Fane-Saunders has the most credible perspective of most I’ve seen so far on the real dilemma for the PR profession, as I noted in my post.

      Still, one thing you and I can agree on is the concluding sentence from your post:

      Our industry should come clean about how it and the media really functions and about on what premises trust and integrity really rest.

      However, that’s a call that been going on for decades. Maybe one company at a time. From the agency side, Burson Marsteller could make a bold start on that over this issue as I suggest in my post.

  5. Paul Seaman

    BM were inept, clumsy, and perhaps unlucky, not unethical. That’s not a crime. The mother-hood and apple pie brigade does more harm to our trade’s reputation than those who speak plain about real-world realities. The truth is that the more goody-goody and bossy PRs want to be perceived as being, the less honest they become. In contrast, that’s what makes Ryan Air and the bust ups in the airline industry so refreshing; something that Dominic Lawson remarked on yesterday’s Sunday Times.

    Moving on the debate he added:

    “It is the very basis of corporate public relations — always has been, always will be — to persuade journalists to give voice to arguments that, if they came directly from the client, could be dismissed as mere propaganda. In turn, it is the role of the journalist to establish if the arguments have merit and are of importance to readers.”

    • neville

      Agree, Paul, they were all those things. And the behaviour of the two B-M execs was unethical. You know it and I know it (and B-M knows it).

      Take a look at WPP’s code of business practice (entitled “Our Ethical Approach to Business”) which B-M embraces. Start here:

      […] Burson-Marsteller’s reputation is founded on adherence to these principles and values. All actions taken by a Burson-Marsteller employee member should conform to the WPP Code of Business Conduct.

      Then here:

      […] We will not undertake work which is intended or designed to mislead […]

      And here:

      […] We will consider the potential for clients or work to damage the Group’s reputation prior to taking them on.

      I suppose you could argue that what the two execs did was only breach their employer’s code of conduct, in which case it may be an HR issue at the end. That’s missing the point, in my view.

      This is about behaviours that reasonable people expect from other people in business. You could say that’s naive and the kind of thing B-M engaged in is the way PR is done. You had a link in your post to someone saying that smear campaigns are a normal part of the PR mix. What utter rubbish. If I believed such actions were universal – which, thankfully, they’re not – I wouldn’t be in this business.

      But such views are simply opinion, like your post and mine. What’s clear to me is that the way in which the two B-M execs went about what they did was simply unacceptable and it is a question of unethical behaviour.

      But that’s my view which obviously differs to yours. And that’s just fine!

  6. Paul Seaman

    Neville, you’ve effectively smeared the two Burson-Marsteller consultants. They didn’t mislead anybody. They made it plain a/ they were working on behalf of a client b/ they were not at liberty to name that client. They were statements of fact….they didn’t lie, or at least we have no evidence that they did so (Facebook’s denial is contested by BM). The opinions they wanted to see in print were ones already in the public domain. Moreover, they issued a health warning and asked the blogger to check their facts for accuracy. They asked the blogger also to assess the extent to which he agreed with them on the issue at stake. Sure, they broke their employer’s code, which said they should always name the client. But that does not make them unethical or misleading, not in my book…not at all. Smear is a loaded word. But competition is nasty and vicious and knocking the opposition forms a large part of what goes on in the real world (openly and covertly). PRs should be able to be honest about this stuff and should not be embarrassed by it.

    • neville

      Hardly smeared them, Paul – their own employer is to offer them training to help them follow WPP’s code of business practice, the one entitled “Our Ethical Approach to Business.”

      As you note, they did indeed break their employer’s code – that same one entitled “Our Ethical Approach to Business.”

      I agree with you that ‘knocking the opposition’ is a legitimate business practice. I do it, you do it. But there’s huge difference to how I do it (and, I expect, you) and how those two B-M execs went about their practice.

  7. Paul Seaman

    I’ve got visions of them being dragged by the scuff of their necks to a Stalinist-style reeducation camp to be indoctrinated into the BM way… The course will open with an overview of intentions …”You are here to be taught how to be ideology and politically correct, and how not to get caught (oops, sorry, I couldn’t resist)…” My point, Neville, is that I am more minded to defend these guys than your are. I think too much has been made of very little. I maintain that BM is a victim of its own moral grandstanding. Why should PRs always have to always name their clients? Private investigators and other professions don’t have to (some lobbyists resist, too, and for good reasons).

    • neville

      I prefer to think that some smart people at Burson Marsteller will take the approach to helping employees understand what’s expected of them, why and how their employer will help them succeed, such as the approach taken by Edelman.

      Take a look at this video of Edelman’s Rick Murray talking about how they help employees understand social media. Same can apply to a fundamental aspect such as ethics.

  8. Paul Seaman

    But I don’t think we are discussing ethics so much as perception. The smart people at Burson Marsteller know that. I think that explains why nobody lost their job over this embarrassing episode. Sure, BM is going through the motions of ARM PR – apologize, reform and move on. ARM PR is what it sells to its clients. ARM PR puts self-denigration and self-abnegation to the fore of communication. It turns the likes of Burson Marsteller and its clients into the advocates of cringe. In short, this little incident is a case study highlighting how PR firms sell both their clients and themselves short. I say it is about time that PRs displayed more pride in both their clients and their own trade. The shame on BM is how it ran for cover…behind mealy-mouthed codes of practice in a wasted effort to be seen to be politically correct.

    • neville

      It’s a shame that you seem so blinded by cynicism, Paul, that you can’t see what really matters – what the two Burson Marsteller executives (and Facebook) did was unethical by the standards most of us hold. And B-M needs to address that.

      That’s it.

  9. Paul Seaman

    I am not cynical. I think the response to this incident is cynical. And I don’t think that most PRs really do share your worries about the ethics of this incident. We are a tough trade and most PRs are pragmatic. The main worry for Burson Marsteller has been the public perception of the incident rather than the facts themselves (they were also trapped by their own code of practice and moral ground-standing). I think that ARM PR is entirely cynical and mostly insincere, unless there really were serious issues to address. The fact is, PRs will not be trusted until we learn to speak plainly in a matter-of-fact way about tough issues. Until we do we are going to continually expose ourselves to the kind of self-inflicted humiliation that BM is now experiencing. The point BM has not yet grasped is that the public instinctively sees through BS, and that explains why we find it difficult to be trusted. My message? Toughen up and tell it as it is.

    • neville

      I’ve never heard of ‘ARM PR’ before. Maybe I need to get out more.

      I remain convinced this is a very clear matter of unethical business practice by two executives of a PR firm; you don’t see that at all. Fair enough: you have your opinions, I have mine. So I think we’ll conclude this discussion for now on an agree-to-disagree basis.

      This is a prime discussion topic in today’s episode of my podcast so hope you’ll tune in, as it were, to the episode once it’s published later this evening UK time; I’ll post the link here.

  10. How Burson Marsteller Can Emerge From Its Facebook PR Fiasco | WebProNews

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