Danny Rogers: Facebook’s campaign wins industry few friends

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The ethics of the PR business have again been called into question. The latest revelation is that global consultancy Burson-Marsteller has pursued a less-than-transparentmedia campaign for Facebook, against arch-rival Google.

B-M’s aggressive media briefing against Google’s privacy policy was funded by Facebook but B-M operatives did not reveal their client. Some reputational damage has been done to the Facebook brand, but B-M – and the wider PR profession – took the bigger hit.

Unfortunately the US-headquartered B-M is seen as having “form” in the area of poor ethics and “dodgy” clients. In the 1990s it was criticised for its work for tobacco giant Philip Morris, trying to weaken the perceived link between second-hand smoke and cancer. The agency also advised Union Carbide Corporation on crisis management following the 1984 Bhopal disaster.

As one of the biggest corporate comms companies since 1953, B-M will inevitably have been involved in controversy. Global CEO Mark Penn was a trusted adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, while UK CEO Matt Carter once worked for Tony Blair as general secretary of the Labour Party.

There are some in the British PR industry who don’t think BM’s Facebook work was immoral or indeed unusual. Rival organisations brief against one another – it’s part of the cut and thrust of public and commercial life.

Others insist the incident sets the industry back. One former BMboss told me he was considering erasing his former employer from his biography. “This is a dark day for PR,” he bemoaned, “and for future generations of aspiring PR hopefuls this will make a great case study on how not to do it.” Danny Rogers is editor of PR Week