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:

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.

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The Government recently unveiled an advertising and communications campaign to promote the export opportunities that exist to British industry.  Some might consider the timing to be odd given that the nation is in the middle of the worst recession in living memory.  But a recent UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) conference in London at the beginning of the month proved otherwise.

At UKTI’s ‘Digital Business: India and China’ two day conference which I worked on (Reuters TV news above) small and medium sized technology and communications companies came together to share knowledge on the opportunities that lay in two countries that are bucking the downward global economic trend.

Companies from Britain’s digital, technology, mobile and gaming sectors agreed that while growth in the UK was hard, business opportunities in these two countries gave them hope for the future.

During the second day, which was devoted to China, representatives from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology gave an insight into the help that was available to UK companies thinking of investing in China, a country that is looking to move its economy towards value-adding products and services.

Welcoming The World To Britain
Welcoming The World To Britain

We’ve seen UKTI’s ‘Take It To The World’ campaign message on billboards at stations up and down the country.  And companies like Playfish.com are an example of how Britain can take gaming to the world.

But what has this got to do with PR and communications?  Well, it was wisely pointed out at the conference that China was not just looking to bring expertise to its home country.  Businesses in China are looking to enter the British and European marketplace, thus increasing the need for services such as PR, advertising and the like for them.

And let’s be honest, Britain has usually been concerned about China and it’s new financial muscle.  But with the UK PR industry suffering in the current recession the opportunities that might exist from Chinese companies wishing to expand into Europe might help.

Some of the big agencies, such as Burson-Marsteller already serve and support Chinese companies, such as  online business-to-business trading company Alibaba.com, which last week announced a 39 per cent increase in revenue to over £300 million.

Agencies are getting ready for business from merging markets.  Maybe Brazil will be next.  Not a bad place for a business trip me thinks!