Burson-Marsteller and Facebook isn’t just right or wrong

I’ve hesitated to add to the plethora of informative, biased, ignorant, helpful and self-righteous blog posts that have been published on the ‘Burson-Marsteller paid by Facebook to smear Google’ story. However, I do think there are still some relatively unexplored areas to discuss.

The thrust of the arguments against Burson-Marsteller are that 1) It’s wrong to ‘smear’ or point out negatives about your competitors and 2) It’s wrong not to disclose who you’re working for.

There have been lots of references to the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) code of conduct but in the UK it is more relevant for us to look at the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) and PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association) codes.

The CIPR code of conduct doesn’t make any explicit reference to either negative briefing or lack of disclosure. It does call on members to ‘Maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity…’ and to ‘Deal honestly and fairly in business…’. Rather bizarrely the section of the code that covers transparency is bracketed with conflicts of interest and appears to be solely concerned with disclosure to ‘employers, clients or potential clients’. This is something that I’d like the CIPR to take a fresh look at and I will raise it at the next CIPR Social Media panel meeting, especially as the PRCA code is much clearer.

The PRCA code of conduct starts with stating that member firms shall ‘Have a positive duty to observe the highest standards in the practice of public relations.’ The PRCA code is also very explicit about disclosure:

‘2.3 Have a duty to ensure that the actual interest of any organisation with which it might be professionally concerned is adequately declared.’

My personal view is that although it can be ethically acceptable to brief negative information about competitors, it is very rare that you’d actually need to. There are two tests that I would apply before ever conducting a negative briefing:

1) Is it actually necessary or do you have a reasonable chance of achieving your objectives by remaining positive?

2) You must be open about who you are working for. If you are confident that what you’re doing is ethically correct then why would you want to hide it?

In my 20+ years career I can count on one hand when I’ve had to conduct a negative briefing. On those few occasions I think it was always for the same reason. Namely that competitors were negatively briefing about my client and journalists weren’t being particularly proactive in fact checking their stories or conducting their own research. Quite simply most journalists aren’t focussed on investigative journalism – Woodward and Bernstein are the exception rather than the rule. That’s why sometimes as a public relations professional you’ve got to assist them by informing them of facts that they don’t have the time, inclination or ability to find for themselves. The emphasis being on the word fact, it is always absolutely wrong to spread smears and half-truths.

You can nearly always find a way to achieve your public relations objectives by remaining positive. It’s an unfortunate truth that one of the reasons you might have to resort to negative briefing is because of poor journalism. If journalists are spinning their version of the truth – and some journalists have agendas and can spin just as much as PR people – then you might be forced into a negative briefing simply to stem the tide of negativity against you. Bad news is good copy, so providing negative briefings can provide the bad news that journalists crave.

So my conclusion is that Burson-Marsteller’s main offence was not the negative briefing per se, but not disclosing the client relationship.

Some other good posts worth reading:

Robert Minton-Taylor, PR lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University and former Burson-Marsteller director – The truth will out

Philip Young, senior PR lecturer at the University of Sunderland – What did B-M do wrong in the Google ‘smear’ campaign?

Terence Fane-Saunders, former UK chairman of Burson-Marsteller – Furtive and creepy

Paul Seaman – When ‘friends’ fallout over ‘dirty tricks’

About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.