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Shame on you, Burson-Marsteller!

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A complaint too often heard from Public Relations pros is: "We get no respect."

It's not hard to see why many in this field feel that way. We often get ignored by the media, with pitches and calls unanswered. Clients think what we do is easy and that all you have to do to get coverage is be good friends with a reporter or producer.

Ours is not an easy field, and it's hard to gain respect ... from media and from clients. Some of the lack of respect may, unfortunately, be justified because many in PR act less than professionally. I cringe when I hear friends in the media tell stories about PR people who call constantly, never taking no for an answer, and lying, begging or crying to convince a reporter to use a story or interview a client. I've heard too many stories about PR people who are then unresponsive when a reporter finally does call for information. And, of course, there are more stories about poorly written news releases.

Those of us in PR who do conduct ourselves professionally often have to work even harder to prove ourselves because of the badwill caused by the PR hacks and untrained/unsupervised junior people.

One would think that one of the biggest and oldest PR agencies in the nation would have high standards for all aspects of the work it does---especially in terms of ethics. That's why it's disheartening to read that Burson-Marsteller has seriously breached the ethics of our profession.

It's come out today that Burson-Marsteller has been waging a smear campaign against Google, on behalf of its client Facebook. USA Today earlier had reported that Burson was trying to convince media people to write negative stories about privacy concerns with a Google Gmail product called Social Circle. Evidently, this has been going on for several days, without Burson saying who was actually behind the negative assertions. The information Burson was spreading for Facebook has, in fact, turned out to be false.

I don't care one bit whether the assertions about Google are true. It is 100% wrong and unethical to try to plant stories in the media without disclosing where they are coming from. The extremely highly-paid bigwigs at Burson should know better, and they should have ensured that their middle managers know and adhere to a basic code of ethics.

Fraser Seitel, a respected PR practitioner and counselor, had this to say in Ragan's PR Report: “Good, solid, substantial firms, like these, should conduct themselves ethically above board. If Facebook has problems with Google, then it should have the confidence and decency to express the reasons why, from the mouth of a Facebook executive. Sneaking around, conducting negative research, surreptitiously placing anonymous hit pieces, based on one-sided bias, is normally associated with PR bottom feeders in Washington and L.A., not respected firms like Burson.”

The PRSA (not one of my favorite trade groups) has a code of ethics that frowns upon such behavior. A comment in one of the PR trade journals today quotes PRSA Chairman Rosanna Fiske as saying only 14 of the 2,200 Burson employees are PRSA members and therefore subject to its code of conduct.

Hogwash! As one of the biggest PR agencies around, Burson has an obligation on many fronts, including to the PR profession as a whole, to uphold high ethical standards. This behavior is what one might expect of a "hack" PR shop or a K Street lobbying firm in DC, pulling stuff out of its bag of political dirty tricks.

Shame on Burson Marsteller for putting a stain on the Public Relations profession! You, of all agencies, should know better.

No doubt, we'll be hearing more about this as the story unfolds and gets spun. But the damage is done, and now here's another reason we get no respect. Because when a shop like Burson pulls crap like this, maybe we simply don't deserve the respect we so crave.


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After 30+ years in this business, I still look forward to going to work. Rarely are two days the same, and the challenges are varied and stimulating.

My firm, Reich Communications, Inc., handles an interesting range of clients that take me from b2b to consumer publicity, from the world of high-priced art to advocacy for issues including traffic safety and securing mental health resources for survivors of mass violence globally.

Over the years at mid-size and large New York agencies, I’ve served a client roster that reads like a “who’s who” of business – General Electric, Emery, Ryder, Travelers Insurance, Phillips Petroleum, Georgia-Pacific and Jaguar Cars. I’ve also worked with groups like the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association (for their giant New York Auto Show), Syndicated Network Television Association, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Highlights include leading the publicity team that launched L’eggs hosiery, which later became a Harvard B-School case history. I also managed P.R. and community relations for the Metro New York McDonald's Co-op, with more than 250 stores. We won a Marketing Excellence Award for a McDonald's public service program I developed on fire safety. It also won an Emmy for on-air host Dr. Frank Field, health & science editor at media partner WCBS-TV in New York, and it was directly credited by the NYFD for saving several lives. During those years, I also had more than my share of Big Macs.

I have a degree in Industrial Management and an MBA in Public Relations. I live in southern Westchester, 15 miles north of midtown Manhattan, in the same town where I grew up. “Money-earnin’ Mount Vernon” is how the town is now known as a center of hip-hop culture, but it also claims as native sons Denzel Washington, Dick Clark, author e.b. White, Art Carney, Art Buchwald and Sean “P-Diddy” Combs.

I write about marketing, media and public relations at my blog, "my 2 cents" If I ever retire from this crazy business, I'd love to be an all-night jazz deejay.

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  • by Victoria Ipri Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Excellent piece, David.

    In my industry (social media), we see a lot of hype, but little hope for overwhelmed clients. Those of us who have the tools and the smarts to really help clients often get lumped in with those who know just enough about social media to be dangerous. It ruins the reputation of an entire industry, leaving smaller providers struggling for the respect they deserve.

    This post, begun by my friend and colleague Therese Pope, explains more: http://bit.ly/lRrJvz

    Keep this insightful information coming, David!

  • by David Reich Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Thanks for your comment and for the link.

  • by David Reich Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    After I had submitted this post last week, Burson issued an apology, of sorts.

    Here's an official statement from Burson Marsteller about this issue...
    This is from their online Newsroom.

    The following statement was released by Burson-Marsteller on May 12, 2011.

    "Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.

    The client 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."

  • by Jeanne Byington Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    David,

    I hope nobody covered BM's "news" proving that they, too, are untrained and unsupervised. A basic rule of PR is to make clear who/what you represent. If this isn't apparent, a reporter should know to ask before setting finger on keyboard or lips to microphone.

    I don't need PRSA or any other organization or their rules to run an ethical PR business. Most of us don't.

    My heart sinks when I read of any PR agency, big or small, that sleazes and cheats or I hear about any PR person who lies, overstates, and blah, blah, blahs his/her way to what he/she wants--be it a placement or a client.

    That said, I don't in any way feel that BM and the way it conducts its business reflects on my ethics. I have worked years to protect my reputation, as have you. It’s the most valuable thing any business person has.

    However something bad does happen when PR firms promise the world to clients and cheat to achieve unrealistic results: It inflates clients' expectations, setting standards that legitimate PR people can't meet.

    Some of BM's clients will look to smaller businesses to represent them. This will mean more business for those who conduct themselves the way they should. That's the good news.

  • by David Reich Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Yes, the problems and mistakes of giant agencies might mean a shot at some business for us smaller agencies, but more than likely, it will just reflect badly on all of us in the PR business -- large or small.

  • by Alan Hirsch Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    1. Article says "Some lack of respect may, unfortunately, be justified because many in PR act less than professionally."

    Response: Most lack of respect is justified, because most people in PR act less than professionally. This is to be expected, because anyone, anywhere only needs to say "I am in public relations" to be in public relations. It is exactly the same for other activities such as journalism, radio/tv, blogging, speechwriting, research, book and magazine writing, photography.

    This is not the case for professions such as law, medicine, dentistry, accounting, teaching. Here standards for knowledge must be met and yet all of us have plenty of complaints against lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and teachers. Incompetency is common even for those highly regulated professions, so why shouldn't there be great incompetency in the PR field, where there is no regulation.

    What should be understood is that many people working in many professions and/or crafts are incompetent. The PR field is not a solo practitioner for incompetency. It is just one of the players.

    2. "Good PR pros have to work even harder to prove ourselves because of the bad will caused by PR hacks and untrained/unsupervised junior people."

    We can say that for all professions and skills. It is especially easy to understand, if one has had the pleasure of having a bad teacher, a bad doctor or a bad lawyer.

    3. It's disheartening to read that Burson Marsteller has seriously breached the ethics of our profession.

    I'm not surprised that Burson has breached any ethics, any more than I am surprised at what happens in the NY State Senate, or at BP, or at the NYPD or the U.S. Naval Academy, or at the White House.

    I once had to threaten a major national pr firm when it was on a campaign to hire our (very small firm) employees, because they were good and they were trained properly. I simply said to its CEO that if he condoned the hiring of one more person from our staff that he would have a very big problem. The raiding of our staff stopped immediately.

    Why should Burson Marsteller be expected to conduct itself in an ethical manner, when our own NY State legislature allows its members to work for law firms and clients and not reveal who they are working for on the side? Conflict of interest?

  • by Therese Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    David, thanks so much for your excellent article. I just shook my head when I read about Burson-Marsteller and I cringed for all the reputable PR and ad agencies out there who provide services to their clients. It was disappointing that BM stooped so low and resorted to amateurish smear tactics. BM is beyond that tabloid-esque crap. I studied their case studies in my PR classes back in the 90s and I had a lot of respect for BM - not anymore.

    I've experienced some unethical PR agencies and that's what turned me off to traditional agency work. On the flip side, I interned with a fantastic female-run PR agency during my college days. I worked a stint in book publicity after college and that was tough work. For people who don't work in PR, they either think it's a glamorous job or PR practitioners are a bunch of sleazy liars which is far from the truth. I absolutely agree - BM gives ethical PR pros a bad name. Just because an agency is a member of PRSA that doesn't mean anything to me - the proof is in the pudding. Jean brings up a great point. I don't need to shell out big bucks to PRSA, IABC, AMA, AWAI etc. to prove that I run an ethical company.

    As my colleague Victoria Ipri pointed out above, it just takes one apple to spoil the bunch. Integrity has gone to the wayside and it's disheartening for social media and marketing consultants like us who work hard to build our businesses. I don't claim perfection but I pride myself on my professional ethics and I keep my clients best interest at heart.

  • by David Reich Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Someone just sent this to me, from Ragan's PR Daily...

    PR Daily contributor Gil Rudawsky offered some common-sense lessons from the fallout of this incident. Among his lessons:

    “Ethics is not an abstract word. Live it, breathe it, and incorporate it into every action. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it will help reset the bar for the industry—and let you sleep at night.”

  • by David Reich Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Actually, Therese, what makes this even more disheartening is that the B-M employees who attempted the smear campaign are former journalists. They should have known better. Journalists sometimes look down their noses at those of us in PR, thinking we've sold out. How ironic.

  • by Therese Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    That's even worse. They definitely should have known better. I agree - oh, the irony.

    Good quote by Gil Rudawsky.

  • by Therese Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Here's another great quote from veteran PR pro, Fraser Seitel:


    "Sneaking around, conducting negative research, surreptitiously placing anonymous hit pieces, based on one-sided bias, is normally associated with PR bottom feeders in Washington and L.A., not respected firms like Burson.”

  • by Steve Parker Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Although there are many fine and ethical people at the largest PR firms (and many years ago I was one), it's naive to think that these giant conglomerates are anything but mercenary in the way they decide whose business to take. As a group they represent bomb makers, the nuclear industry, big oil, foreign dictators like Khaddafi, casinos, polluters and just about every possible type of loathsome person or organization, including frauds, swindlers, tax evaders and narcissistic buffoons. Need I even mention politicians? In this they are no different than other elite service firms, such as law firms and management consultants, who do the same. They have no choice but to follow the money. To be fair they sometimes don't know how bad the client is. But once a PR firm is part of a publicly traded company, the stockholders' insatiable demand for short-term returns and maximum profits trumps all other considerations. Should have known better? There's such a complete lack of moral outrage in this country about anything now that I'm shocked that anyone could muster any for poor old Burson. In the end, the situation is similar to what A.J. Liebling said about freedom of the press: "It belongs to those who own one (a printing press)." In this case, the PR agency moral high ground pretty much is confined to the smaller, privately held agencies who are free to tell a large corporation--any corporation--to stuff it if they want because they call their own shots and live with the consequences. It may be a shame but that's the reality. There are lots of sandbaggers for hire.

  • by David Reich Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Wow. Where to start...

    It's true that the giant agencies are under tremendous pressure to show ever-increasing revenues and profits, which may drive them to take clients or projects they may know, in their hearts, they shouldn't. But I've seen some smaller and mid-size agencies make questionable decisions because they're going for the money.

    I remember years ago, not long after I started my own shop, when I rejected a potential client because they admitted their product -- a skin regeneration cream or something like that -- really did nothing. I wanted the money, but I didn't want to ruin my reputation with the media. So I passed on it, and it felt good. No bosses to try to convince. Just me and my own conscience.

  • by David Reich Tue May 17, 2011 via blog

    Good point, Alan. There's bad judgement and questionable ethics on many other fields as well. Good to know its not just in PR. But still, the bad behavior of a giant firm like Burson can cast a dark shadow on all of us in the field.

  • by David Reich Wed May 18, 2011 via blog

    Yes, these are all things that reputable (or actually ANY) PR agency should not be doing.

  • by Meetermai Johnson Wed May 18, 2011 via blog

    There are so many fields out there that do not have the best image and there seems to be so many people in each industry who continue to give each industry a bad image. I think the main thing we can do is to stay true to ourselves and to those we work for and with. Being honest to those we work with will only make things better. Cheating to get ahead usually just makes things worse.

  • by David Reich Wed May 18, 2011 via blog

    Meetermai, you are so right. Bad behavior isn't unique to the PR field. But when a giant in the industry lets ethics slip, it can hurt us all.

    A friend sent me today some articles about the lack of ethics by so many of our elected and public officials. I suppose people do these things because they think they can get away with it. And in many cases, they do.

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