Transparency Matters

“Think outside the box.”  “Stretch your imagination.”  “No idea is too big or too small.”  How many times have we heard those phrases when brainstorming solutions?  Everyone who practices our craft strives to be as creative as possible to generate the best results for our clients, but how many communications professionals fully understand the ramifications of their chosen strategy?  That’s why this story about a top-five public relations firm really piqued my interest.
I am not using this blog to place blame (plenty of media outlets have already done that), but rather to examine what happened and help others learn how to avoid what has become a rather public embarrassment for said PR firm.
On behalf of an unnamed client, who has since been identified as Facebook, Burson-Marsteller began a “whisper” campaign against Google to shed light on some of their privacy practices, presumably in the name of helping Facebook get out ahead of the competition.  While this practice might not seem extraordinary, the way the campaign was conducted, and the fact that it came from a highly respected firm, was a bit unorthodox.
The events:

  1. A Burson employee, former political columnist John Mercurio, offered to ghost write and place an op-ed column for former FTC researcher and blogger Christopher Soghoian, but would not provide the name of the client to Soghoian.
  2. Soghoian responded by posting Mercurio’s email pitch, along with his rejection, on the Internet. According to Forbes, Soghoian said, “I am quite capable of authoring my own anti-google stuff thank you.”
  3. USA Today devoted a story to the campaign about a week later, which included information about the pitch they received from Burson employee Jim Goldman, a former CNBC reporter.
  4. Former Internet analyst Henry Blodget, who now writes for Silicon Alley Insider, later proclaimed, “BUSTED: Former CNBC Tech Reporter Jim Goldman Caught Spreading Lies About Google For Unnamed PR Client.”
  5. Burson-Marsteller says that it shouldn’t have pitched negative Google stories on behalf of Facebook.

In their apology, Burson conceded that, “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.”
Media is a fantastic tool to get your messages to a broad group of people, but remember that everything you say or write is “on the record.”  Should we continue to find creative ways to disseminate messages?  Of course.  Should we do so without transparency?  Absolutely not.  In most cases, taking the high road is indeed the best course of action.


Laurie Berman,