Consumers may demand authenticity, not spin – but dirty PR tricks still win
This is what I would *like* to write:
Clever people learn from mistakes – their own or those of others. They also listen to consumers and learn from their reactions.
The scandal around Facebook’s secret hiring of PR firm Burson-Marsteller to start a whisper campaign about Google’s privacy policies is something that Facebook and all big businesses should learn from. The public backlash against such sneaky PR tactics shows that the 21st-century audience demand authenticity – that, as James Gilmore and Joseph Pine say in their book Authenticity, “Business today…is all about being real. Original. Genuine. Sincere. Authentic.” If you suspect your competitor is doing something unfair or wrong, lay the evidence openly at the feet of your users and let them judge.
Sadly, it’s not true.
This is the truth:
Facebook’s secret hiring of PR firm Burson-Marsteller to start a whisper campaign about Google’s privacy policies shows that dirty tricks still win.
Both Facebook and Burson-Marsteller grossly violated the PRSA Code of Ethics.
- In hiring Burson-Marsteller secretly, Facebook violated the core guideline to “be honest and accurate in all communications.”
- In accepting the commission from Facebook, Burson-Marsteller violated the guideline to “decline representation of clients or organizations that urge or require actions contrary to this Code” and “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.”
- In revealing Facebook’s shady dealings after the scandal broke, Burson-Marsteller failed to “protect privileged, confidential, or insider information gained from a client or organization.”
- In working together on such a slimy deal, the companies failed to “work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession” and to “avoid actions and circumstances that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests.”
Rosanna Fiske, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, was one of many high-level PR professionals to give a damning indictment of Burson-Marsteller’s behavior on the PRSA blog.
There is no doubt that Facebook’s decision to be dishonest in this case was not a one-off error of judgment or a slip-up by a minor clerk. Nobody hires a $250-per-hour PR firm to start a whisper campaign by mistake.
Facebook is not the only culprit
Facebook is not the only mega-internet company trying to screw its competitors. For instance, take Google’s ingenious test of and attack on Microsoft’s Bing search engine for allegedly recycling Google search results.
Google caught Microsoft with their pants down and opened the door for the rest of the world to peer in. Facebook itself got caught with its pants down when attempting to pee on Google. There’s no doubt that Google managed it better than Facebook – perhaps due to the difference in maturity between the two companies’ senior managements – but really, the whole place stinks.
Yet dirty PR tricks still win
And yet. The controversies blew over within a few days, and are now nowhere to be seen. Try Googling it, then check the dates – all within a day or two of May 11, 2011. The internet may have a long memory, but its users do not. Burson-Marsteller are still a hugely successful PR firm. Facebook and Google are still the most popular websites in the U.S.
So the lesson for PR professionals is that you can violate all professional standards and ethical values. Some of your dirty tricks will pay off and your competitors will be smeared. Some may blow up in your face – but the explosion will be small and the internet media and bloggers will soon scurry off when another shiny object or scandal hits the tech world.
It is interesting and ironic that the internet is supposed to be a big dynamic, democratic, distributed network where everyone has a say. In reality the huge power brokers of the web, and their spinning PR firms, are secretly manipulating us like pawns.