Global public relations and communications agency Burson-Marsteller was outted last week by a blogger for planting anti-Google stories for Facebook that would smear the reputation of the search giant.
Blogger Chris Soghoian was approached by Director of Burson-Marsteller’s Washington DC Media Practice John Mercurio to see if he would write an op-ed for a top-tier media outlet that from a PR perspective would further raise awareness of privacy issues surrounding Google’s business. Soghoian rebuffed Mercurio and published their email correspondence, which was subsequently picked up by The Daily Beast who confirmed that Burson’s client was the social networking mammoth Facebook.
The assignment raises questions not just about the ethics of PR in promoting one set of views over another, but also our industry’s understanding of the media landscape in which it operates.
Let’s not be naïve, assignments such as the one that Burson accepted does take place. It is part and parcel of what the business world. Briefings, allegations, misinformation are tactics that while they are crude, are part of certain people’s skill-set.
That said, one of the first questions that needs to be asked is that of why did Facebook deide to or even agreed to a campaign to highlight the failings of a competitor? Such campaigns, as we have seen, carry a lot or risk and can leave ones reputation severely damaged. Why didn’t Facebook embark on a communication initiative that would highlight it’s strengths, while ignoring competitors weaknesses. Strategically the answer lies within Facebook and the counsel it received from Burson-Marsteller.
All this said and knowing about the factitious relationship that exists between these two giants, questions have to be asked about the quality of Burson’s work, an agency that I must declare I did work for in 2008.
The content, structure and tone in the brief email correspondence between the two parties that Soghoian released raise a number of key points and questions:
- Mercurio is Burson-Marsteller’s Director of Media Practice in Washington.
- Mercurio was a former journalist, specialist in politics, who between 2002 and 2005 was CNN’s Political Editor.
- Mercurio’s experience appears to lie within the political sector, certainly this was his sole beat between when he graduated from Boston University with a degree in Journalism and until he left The National Journal as Executive Editor.
Bearing these points in mind and from reading his email exchange with Soghoian one questions why Burson would have Mercurio work on such a project. Let me highlight the reasons I ask this:
- In Mercurio’s opening email on May 3rd, John addresses Chris Soghoian as ‘Mr. Soghoian’. Would a person who had a close working relationship with this blogger address him as ‘Mr’? Isn’t this quite a detached introduction from somebody who does not have a strong working relationship with said blogger?
- Mercurio is a Burson’s Director of Media with a background in politics, why is he involved in blogger relations? Surely this would have been the responsibility of a tech team or at least of somebody who would not approach Soghoian with a ‘Mr. Soghoian’.
- While Mercurio offered the opportunity of an op-ed piece, why is it he and not somebody with a better working relationship offering Soghoian this opportunity?
- Why is Burson using email to connect with bloggers, knowing full well that email correspondence can be leaked?
Such work is only successful if there is an element of trust that you can work on. Approaching bloggers in such a cold manner leaves not just an agency such a Burson-Marsteller open to attack, but also the client who rightly so would expect anonymity.
Mercurio is trained as a journalist, with a background in politics. Surely he has experience on how to received leaks and how to protect sources.
From a communications perspective the whole operation leaves one questioning not just the suitability of Burson for such an assignment, but the internal understanding of how views and opinions are shaped in a world that is less media-centric. There will be plenty of internal questions within this prestigious agency given that it isn’t just Facebook’s reputation that’s been damaged.