PRSA chair/CEO weighs in on Burson-Marsteller ethics flap

Only 14 of B-M’s 2,200 employees are members of the Public Relations Society of America and thereby subject to its code of conduct. Is that a factor?


After reading USA Today‘s expose on an alleged “whisper campaign” waged by Burson-Marsteller (B-M) on behalf of an unnamed client, I said to myself, “Oh, no, say it isn’t so.”

In case you missed it, B-M staffers—led by CNBC ex-anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio—apparently engaged reporters and bloggers about the Gmail feature Social Circle, claiming a variety of privacy concerns about Google products and services that the company wasn’t disclosing to users.

In an email to former FTC researcher and blogger Christopher Soghoian, Mercurio solicited Soghoian’s interest in writing an op-ed along those lines, which Mercurio even offered to ghost write. At the same time, Goldman was pitching the story to USA Today.

Seemingly unbeknownst to Mercurio and Goldman, however, Soghoian posted online the full text of his email exchange with Mercurio—including asking, “Who’s paying for this [campaign]?” and Mercurio’s response that he “can’t disclose my client yet.”

After seeing Soghoian’s post and fact-checking Goldman’s pitch (finding large portions of it factually incorrect), the public relations firm became the story.

If true, that story is unflattering. Articles in USA Today and PRNewser portray B-M as trying to shield the identity of its client and as circulating misleading, if not false, information.

What about history?

This story could have ended much differently if B-M had revealed its client and the client’s intentions, and relied on facts to support its argument.

Question is: As a profession, don’t we learn from our mistakes?

The past six years have seen a variety of high-profile ethical flaps by public relations firms and their clients. From fake news to fake blogging to fake press conferences, the public relations profession has, unfortunately, had its fair share of ethical lapses in recent years.

Now come the allegations that one of the world’s most respected and successful public relations firms is engaging in practices that are unethical and improper under the PRSA Code of Ethics.

One of the six core tenets of our code—only 14 of B-M’s 2,200 global employees are PRSA members and, as such, have agreed to abide by the code—is honesty.

Specifically, PRSA members must “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented—for instance, a client whom the firm is operating on behalf for a specific campaign—and should “avoid deceptive practices.”

Under the PRSA Code, B-M would be obligated to reveal its client and to disclose the client’s intentions, which appear to amount to an attack upon Google’s practices.

Of course, PRSA is not the only public relations professional organization with a Code of Ethics. The Council of PR Firms, the Arthur Page Society, and IABC all have their respective codes, and we’re curious to hear what these organizations will have to say about this matter.

Don’t we all bear a responsibility to use these “teachable moments” to advance as professionals and to advance the profession as a whole?

As for PRSA, we’re moving more aggressively than ever to raise the issues our members care about, and chief among them is the ethical practice of public relations. It’s not that ethical public relations equals good public relations; it is, however, that those who do not practice ethical public relations affect all of us, regardless of the environment in which we work, and the causes we represent.

An infraction upon one of our own has an impact on how we’re perceived as individuals, how public relations agencies and major companies are perceived as corporate citizens, and how the profession as a whole is perceived.

The level of public trust that public relations professionals seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on a special obligation to operate ethically. The ironic thing is that B-M got exactly what it wanted: a big article in USA Today talking about privacy concerns with Google’s services.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, its tactics in so doing have again called into question public relations professionals’ ethics. In that regard, we all lost.

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. This post first appeared on the PRSay blog.

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