B-M Says Facebook Assignment “Should Have Been Declined”

News broke last night on The Daily Beast that the client behind Burson-Marsteller’s bungled Google “whisper campaign” was Facebook. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the social network hired B-M;  The Daily Beast writer Dan Lyons says that B-M refused to say until Facebook confirmed the information.

A statement PRNewser received via email from B-M this morning reads:

Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.

The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.  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.

Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.

Many media outlets are digging into the details of why Facebook would launch such a campaign, but certainly, reporters are noting  that Burson-Marsteller, a top-notch agency, participated in this episode.

Dan Lyons writes on The Daily Beast:

Yet here were two guys from one of the biggest and best-known PR agencies in the world, blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops. Even yesterday, when I asked flat out whether Facebook had been the client behind the campaign, a Burson spokesman refused to confirm it.

Business Insider wrote, “But the fact that this one was coming from Burson Marsteller–a high-end global communications firm–and former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman makes this one noteworthy,” and called the story “the latest chapter in big-PR sleaze.”

The blogger who posted the email exchange, Christopher Soghoian, did an interview with BetaBeat talking about how the pitch went down, saying, “Well I wasn’t the only one who got this pitch to write an op-ed about Google, a bunch of privacy advocates here in D.C. did… I get pitches on a daily basis, but it’s usually a company talking how great their product, so this one made me immediately suspicious, even more so when they wouldn’t reveal who the were working for.”

This is an episode that could have repercussions for the firm for quite some time because it’s both so embarrassing and involves some of the biggest brands on the planet. Moreover, it’s another big-headline story that people will reference when bringing up the ethical challenges of some in the PR industry.

For publicists, one of the many lessons of this story is that, as a PR professional, sometimes you have to discuss alternatives or decline a client’s request when the work is improper.

What are your thoughts? Are you surprised that Facebook was the client? The comments are open.