We’re on the road and face to face at Counselors Academy’s annual conference for PR leaders, where we’ll be doing the next two shows.

Joe leads off this week’s discussion with: the Burson-Marsteller / Facebook imbroglio.

Gini recaps her blog post and sets the scene.  BM had been working with media and bloggers to create a whisper campaign against Google and its social media platform.  The PR firm did not disclose the client.  After much speculation, Facebook admitted they were behind the program. BM issued a statement saying the initiative contravened its policies but did not come out and apologize. PRSA was quoted in a story saying that since only 14 people in the agency are members, they’re the only ones who can be held responsible for the ethics breach.

The story reminds Martin of a classic ‘50s film, The Sweet Smell of Success, with Tony Curtis as a less than honest press agent who conducts a whisper campaign of his own.

Joe says this is a challenge any firm faces. The story affects all PR and communications employees as well as the image of PR as a whole. What he finds most disturbing about BM’s response, is that they use misdirection to colour the perception of who’s responsible for the information.

Tom Garrity discusses the issue of reporters who jump over to PR. He suggests this is a good reminder to re-analyse how we look at and respond to social media in the marketplace. He references a survey his firm conducted in New Mexico that ranks PR and journalist as the lowest trusted professions.

Johna Burke asks what this invokes for agency proprietors as we create partnerships with clients and knowingly or unknowingly get caught up in the 24/7 news cycle.  What can we do internally to resolve and manage situations like this?

Joe responds that an ethics code is not good enough. Ethics should be job one, the core of an agency’s culture, how we treat ourselves and how we treat the outside world.

Martin tries to look at it from the other side: how a call from a high profile client could colour a firm’s perceptions of the assignment, and that it’s important to hold onto your ethics and beliefs and not get caught with stars in your eyes.

Gini wonders when your defences come up and you realize something like this is a lot like Watergate.

Lisa Gerber references the point at which a crisis is inflamed or diffused and how a minority can make the majority look bad. She thinks PRSA should come out with a stronger stand and not simply focus on its members.

Gini would like to see our profession held accountable like other industries.  Martin talks about how an industry-wide code of ethics that all organizations could sign would help establish professional standards… then gets off his high horse.

And that’s where this week’s podcast ends. We’d love to hear your comments on our topic, or any questions you may have.

Please send us an email or an audio comment to [email protected], join the Inside PR Facebook group, leave us a comment here, message us @inside_pr on Twitter, or connect with Gini DietrichJoe Thornley, and Martin Waxman on Twitter

Our theme music was created by Damon de SzegheoRoger Dey is our announcer.

This week’s episode was produced by Kristine Simpson.


  1. Kudos to everyone for a good conversation about an important and timely topic.

    To Lisa Gerber’s point that “PRSA should come out with a stronger stand and not simply focus on its members.”: I can certainly understand her sentiment, which is why we have said precisely that, in so many words: public relations professionals should stand for high ethical standards, regardless of if you are a PRSA member of one of the 170,000 other U.S.-based PR professionals.

    PRSA Chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske said this herself when she told The Telegraph of London (http://ow.ly/4XK4p) that, “This reflects poorly upon the global public relations profession,” she told The Telegraph. “On the whole, public relations practitioners are highly ethical professionals, and our profession’s success and growing value to the business community reflects that. But in this one instance, Burson made a significant ethical lapse.”

    If we weren’t taking a stronger stance, and if we weren’t speaking to the broader profession, and indeed, the entire business community, making it clear that this constituted unethical practices, it is doubtful that the Financial Times management columnist Andrew Hill would have quoted directly from Rosanna’s commentary in his May 17 column (http://ow.ly/4XK50). (To see our full statements on this incident, you can read our blog post (http://ow.ly/4XK6n) and media statements here: http://ow.ly/4XK5K)

    I also said the same when I wrote for PRDaily today (http://ow.ly/4XK6Y) that “Smear campaigns have no place in PR.” I think these statements, among our many others following this matter, demonstrate that we are not only speaking on behalf of our members and reminding them of the need to uphold high ethical standards in public relations, but that we are also sending a clear message to the broader public relations profession that these types of practices are unethical and improper, regardless whether you are a PRSA member or not.

    In fact, I said precisely that in my PRDaily column: “Let me be clear: B-M’s actions on behalf of Facebook were unethical and improper.”
    Like most professional associations, we come back to our core principles when discussing broader industry issues. In this case, we’re careful to note that our Code of Ethics is only pertinent, insofar as members agree to abide by it, to our 32,000 members. But we have also made clear in statements and commentary that the underlying principles of the PRSA Code of Ethics, just like other industry codes, are relevant for any number of PR pros, regardless of whether they are PRSA members or not.

    On a similar matter I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment to create an industry-wide code for all practitioners. That sounds good in theory, but in practicality, I could see it being watered down due to various global issues and freedom of speech restrictions in certain countries. For example, First Amendment freedoms in the U.S. mean PR is almost completely unregulated here and we enjoy broad freedoms in our work. Would PR pros in Russia really be able to sign an enforceable, industry-wide ethics code stating they will always disclose the truth, knowing full well that the Kremlin isn’t too fond of those who speak the truth against it?

    There is always more that can be done. At PRSA, we are exploring every means possible as to how we can use this incident as a teachable moment, both for our members and for the broader profession. If anyone has any concrete ideas or suggestions, please feel free to send me a note at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations

  2. Thanks Keith! We always appreciate your insight and how you spread the word.

    If I understand correctly, there isn’t anything PRSA can do to hold these PR “pros” accountable for two reasons: 1) Neither are members and 2) You’re not a governing board that regulates ethics. It’s my understanding that you’re a membership organization and, while there is a code of ethics, you can’t reprimand a professional for not upholding them.

    The bigger issue that I’ve seen in the conversations about all of this is, “You’re naive if you don’t think this happens. It happens all the time in Washington and the Silicon Valley.”

    I channel my mom when I hear those things and say, “If everyone jumped off the top of the Sears Tower without a parachute, would you do it, too?”

    There needs to be strong advocacy for the profession like what you do through your efforts and what so many of us blog about daily. Unfortunately, one bad apple soils the barrel and we have to work even harder at changing the perception of the industry.

    I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or because we’re in the age of transparency, but this crap is getting old.



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