The Many Layers of the B-M/Facebook Smear Story

The news that Burson-Marsteller/Facebook whisper campaign story unfolded before our eyes this week. And as it did, there were so many details that added so many layers that reaction, understandably, has been tremendous.

At this point, Facebook and Burson are no longer working together, The New York Times reports. And, The Daily Beast writes (h/t to PRWeek) that  the two Burson publicists that handled the campaign, former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman and former political writer John Mercurio, will receive another copy of the firm’s code of ethics (along with everyone at the firm) in order to get a refresher course on right and wrong. Interesting that two former reporters couldn’t clearly see the impropriety of this from the beginning, but we digress.

Reaction from the PR industry has been both critical and exasperated, with many on Twitter expressing a “you know better than that” tone with both the situation and Burson’s statement in response.

“It is practices like this that cause the general public to hold the PR industry in such low esteem,” Steve Lubetkin, a PRSA fellow and managing partner at Lubetkin Communications wrote in the comments section of PRNewser.

“This is akin to PR firms ghost writing client’s blogs, setting up ‘no-fingerprints’ coalitions, and conducting similar black ops tactics that accomplish nothing but embarrassing the client. Real PR professionals know this, and don’t do it. The upside is that it creates more business for crisis specialists such as myself,” Don Goldberg, a founding principal at Bluetext also wrote on this site.

“This incident raises even bigger questions about how the PR industry should operate within an environment where no conversation is sacred and transparency and disclosure are king.  For example, should there be a standard set of ‘rules of engagement’ for PR professionals beyond even what’s already published by our self-governing bodies? On the other hand, is it reasonable or even possible to try and regulate common sense and good judgment?” Kwittken & Company CEO and founder Aaron Kwittken told us via email.

For Burson, this adds to the list of revelations about the work the firm has agreed to do. Forbes did a post today highlighting some of Burson’s lowlights, including work with the Saudi government after 9/11 and with Foxconn, a Chinese company accused of abusing its workers. Slate also commented on Burson’s questionable history here. And of course, there’s Rachel Maddow’s infamous rant.

These days, companies can quickly move past most scandals. But the PR industry as a whole maintains a bad reputation because of these individual ethical lapses. At the same time that the industry moves forward, taking on new clients and responsibilities, it’s continuously saddled with this reputation for bad behavior. Perhaps the industry could go even further if it would stop doing these sorts of things. Adding to the previous comments we received from the PRSA, the organization’s chair Rosanna Fiske said in an op-ed, “An infraction upon one of our own has an impact on how we’re perceived as individuals, how public relations agencies and major companies are perceived as corporate citizens, and how the profession as a whole is perceived.”

Facebook is also feeling repercussions over this whole mess. In its statement, the social network said the information it was trying to push was already public and “No ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended…  The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”

Helen Nowicka at Porter Novelli writes on the firm’s blog that Facebook may “still think of itself as a scrappy start-up at heart” but it’s a top global company now (Mark Zuckerberg interviewed President Obama for Pete’s sake).