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Burson-Marsteller must now wish there was more Privacy than Pitch

May 30, 2011

The tale of Burson-Marsteller’s botched smear campaign against Google commissioned by Facebook is a very interesting study into the concept it all revolves around – Privacy.

It all began with Burson-Marsteller pitching a story about “Google’s sweeping violations of user privacy” to both mainstream and niche writers, namely privacy advocates. BM were so willing to help their client, they offered to ghost write pieces for those wanting to run the story but were hard pressed finding the time or resources to give it the attention they thought it deserved.

The thing they didn’t factor in was the suspicion privacy advocates have regarding anyone trying to push a story about privacy. Enter Christopher Soghoian, a noted blogger on Internet privacy. He questioned BM on who the client was for the campaign and the reply was “”I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet”. This prompted Soghoian to publish the entire email conversation online, effectively pulling the pin on a grenade that went off in BM’s face. USA Today ran the story of the subterfuge and both Burson-Marsteller and Facebook copped a shellacking from media outlets and PR industry bodies alike.

Debate raged for a couple of days about unethical practices and how campaigns like this are a blight on the entire PR industry. Just as things were dying down and most of the fervour had dissipated, Burson-Marsteller themselves reignited the furore by getting caught deleting negative comments from their Facebook page.

Amongst it all, noone seems to have asked about the ethics of confidentiality between PRs and the media. Does the Digital Age and the world of New Media mean that everything is on the record or is this a unique case?

It’s well worth following the links reading up on this debacle to help avoid making the same mistakes Burson-Marsteller did. No doubt they would have preferred this whole thing to have remained private.

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