Update: Now, Burston-Marsteller is outed for deleting negative comments on its Facebook page…
When the news broke yesterday about PR firm Burson-Marsteller’s covert campaign to rubbish Google on behalf of Facebook, I had to check the date. Had we, somehow, returned to April Fool’s Day; was this an elaborate hoax.
Alas, for BM, Facebook, the reputation of both (and the PR industry generally), it was 12 May.
If you haven’t yet heard, Facebook hired the PR company to place stories in high profile media such as the Washington and Huffington Post attacking arch rival Google’s privacy policies in relation to its social networking feature, Google Social Circle.
The plot was outed when journalists challenged BM about their “unnamed client” and the anti-Google campaign, and Facebook eventually came clean. The PR company later released its own statement on the debacle, saying: “This was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined.”
It added, by way of justification, 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.”
Well, all of the above may be so. But it begs the questions: who thought that launching a smear campaign on behalf of a mystery “other” was a good PR strategy that would skip along unquestioned and unchallenged before being, ultimately, exposed? Did no-one involved in communications on either client or agency side raise a hand to say ‘I know this is the way you want to go, but this could go horribly, horribly wrong’?
Rather than having to concoct damage limitation statements about “public domain” information – insinuating that there was some casual, benign purpose in Facebook/BM’s story – wouldn’t it have been better for PR professionals to bury this campaign at birth? Surely, with BM’s “double-digit revenue growth” last year, it doesn’t need the money that badly to engage in dubious client projects.
At the discussion stage of this campaign – regardless of what column inches the client may have been salivating about with this story – good client counsel should have been focused on the more important element of reputation. Not least because Facebook’s own record on privacy issues has been under fire.
Not one for grandiose statements, the Guardian’s technology editor, Charles Arthur, described it as “an epochal moment”.
Neither Facebook nor Burson-Marsteller has come out of this well. And thinking, selfishly, from a purely PR industry position, we’re all the poorer for it.
Jon Clements is a Chartered PR consultant specialising in B2B PR, corporate and marketing communications and is the founder of Metamorphic PR.