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Burson Marstellar and Facebook/Google case shows the need for PR firm audits

Have you ever done a values audit on your public relations firm?

More and more companies will probably starting thinking about undertaking one, if recent news is anything to go by.

I’m talking of course, about the story that broke last week around Burson-Marstellar.

In case you’ve been away, or busy, here’s the story as the Daily Beast broke it:

“Burson and Facebook have been taking heat after The Daily Beast revealed Thursday that Facebook had hired Burson to run a “whisper campaign” against Google, urging reporters and bloggers to write negative stories about Google’s social networking practices. Burson even offered to help a blogger write an op-ed and to place the article in various publications.

The Burson flacks pitching the story would not tell reporters who their client was—something that rarely happens, and which violates professional guidelines set out in the Code of Ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), a professional association for PR people.”

And here’s BM’s statement in response to the media furore that, for once, was justified:

“Facebook 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.”

I’ve been arguing for years that the giant firms such as WPP and Omnicom, among others, that own the big PR, lobbying and marketing firms need to raise their game on basic business ethics.

Their clients, the big corporates, should hire or fire these firms based on their values, their codes of conduct and ethical behaviour. They do the same with contract manufacturers, for example, so why not PR and marketing firms?

In the new world of 24 hour web connections and social media, today it’s easy to argue that your communication company represents as much of a risk to your reputation as a factory in China.

Facebook, like Apple, seems to feel the firm is above all this corporate responsibility stuff. They will soon find out, as both firms have been recently, they are more vulnerable than anyone else due to their visibility.

We’ll be running a big special report in Ethical Corporation magazine in September on PR firms, their owners, clients and business practices. We’ll be arguing it’s high time PR, lobbying and marketing firms got to grips with values, ethics and codes of conduct.

The rest of business has them coming out of their ears. About time WPP and Omnicom, etc, jumped on board, before they are pushed.

1 Comment

  1. In the UK, this form of audit already exists – the PRCA's Consultancy Management Standard, which is a pretty stringent set of protocols agencies have to go through, over and above just signing up to the code of practice.

    B-M are actually members of PRCA and have the Standard. So, perhaps what you're calling for is to add further to this – and strengthen the code of conduct that all PRCA member agencies have to abide by.

    In addition, for public affairs agencies, voluntary regulation is in place. All practitioners have to register their work with PRCA or CIPR. The Lib Dems would like to make this statutory, but as the voluntary system is relatively new, it should be given time to work.

    So, if you strengthen PRCA and CIPR codes and assume the public affairs regulation system works, you're left with the issue of what to do with people who don't sign up…

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