Smear Campaigns Have No Place in PR

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Unless you were living under a rock last week, you likely have heard about the big ethical flap that PR firm Burson-Marsteller found itself in after it was outed by USA TODAY for engaging in an attempted smear campaign on behalf of its famous client, Facebook, against Google. “Whisper-Gate” it’s being called.

Long story short: things blew up — dramatically — in one of the most egregious displays of unethical practices our business has seen since Edelman got caught in 2006 for its fake blogging tactics on behalf of Walmart. Let me be clear: B-M’s actions on behalf of Facebook were unethical and improper.

All of the details of this epic tale have already been fleshed out (including new revelations over the weekend from WIRED.com reporter Sam Gustin that B-M was deleting negative posts about the firm on its Facebook wall) in the hundreds of stories that were written last week. Now, it’s time to consider the long-term impact this will have on PR.

Will our profession use this as a teachable moment; an opportunity to reassess our commitment to serving the public interest and being ethical counselors to our clients? Or will we just brush it aside as yet another instance of an ethical lapse taking center stage for a couple of news cycles.

Speaking as someone who manages advocacy for PRSA, a professional organization that strongly advocates for stringent ethical standards in PR, I sincerely hope it is the former. This unfortunate incident has cast a negative shadow upon our profession; one we can ill afford to become the de facto standard operating procedure.

And I believe that, on the whole, the majority of PR professionals are ethical and have the public’s best interest in mind. While B-M certainly made an ethical lapse in this case, we should give the firm some credit for admitting in a statement that “When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.”

All that said, I was a little shocked to read in PRWeek UK a quote from Speed Communications MD Steve Earl that, “Smearing is an integral part of PR.”

I won’t try to get too high and mighty about this topic, but I will say this: Smear campaigns and unethical non-disclosure of clients and/or clients’ intentions are most certainly not an integral part of PR. That type of work is unethical and against most recognized global standards of ethics in the profession, including the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Thankfully, Mr. Earl’s assertions were counterbalanced in the same PRWeek article with a more sane statement by Fraser Hardie, senior partner of Blue Rubion, which just so happens to represent Facebook in the UK. Mr. Hardie made it clear that his firm had no knowledge of the B-M smear campaign and he went further by taking the stance that his firm is not willing to cross the line between advocacy and smearing.

This incident was an embarrassment to all parties involved, and more broadly, to the PR profession. It was also unethical. But I’m confident we’ll learn from this and add additional value to our work by keeping the public’s best interest in mind, even if that comes at the expense of our clients’ wishes.

We just need to take statements like Mr. Earl’s with a fine grain of salt to get through the murk.

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  • Jim Nichols

     Jack Shafer at Slate went even farther than Earl when he claimed on Friday that PR and smear campaign are synonymous terms — that “most PR campaigns are smear campaigns.” Have a look at my response at http://www.ColeridgeCommunications.com and share your thoughts.

  • http://www.theprcoach.com Jeff Domansky

    Smearing should NEVER be part of PR. Unethical is as unethical does!

  • Nancy

     A lot of good came out of this. The parties were embarrassed, but it provided a needed reality check for all involved. In the end the lesson learned here may prevent an even bigger mess in the future. It proved that journalists can still be society’s watchdogs when they want too and that companies can forget that corporate citizenship is more than a page on their website.

    • http://prbreakfastclub.com/ Keith Trivitt

      Good points, Nancy, and thanks for chiming in. I think it also shows that the trend of journalists-turned-PR-pros, while good for the growth of PR, isn’t always as easy as some make it out to be. During the height of the recession, when reporters were getting laid off left and right, we saw many former journalists turning to PR. This doesn’t necessarily present an issue, unless, like the case with the two B-M employees in question here, they have not been properly vetted for their basic understanding of public relations ethics and strategy development.

      I think this incident also shows, beyond the ethical issues, that having a good strategy in place should be objective No. 1 for the development of any client campaign. clearly, a strong strategy was not thoroughly vetted in this case, as many people have pointed out that this was less of a campaign than it was a ham-fisted effort to smear a competitor.

      Again, thoroughly vetting employees’ competencies, even if they are veteran journalists, goes a long way.

      • Nancy

        The competative nature of the news, the need to break a story also worked against B-M and Facebook. 

        Before colleges offered coruses in PR, journalism was one of the main ways to enter the field. The other way was as an assistant. Reporters could turn out press releases that read like news stories. A former reporter’s news sense was also valued and reporters could contact thier colleagues in the news rooms, which still happens. Their value was the understanding of the news. Clients also valued a former reporter’s council when or she said it was not news.

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  • Guest

    I’ll believe that the PR industry has ethics when I see major associations like PRSA enforce their Code of Ethics.

    Scandals like this actually happen pretty frequently, if you watch within specific industries. There are tons of PR professionals working constantly to game sites like Reddit (http://lmgtfy.com/?q=reddit+g4tv+gamepro). It’s common practice for video game companies to demand good review scores or even deny preview privileges to industry journalists who gave a bad review on a previous title (http://lmgtfy.com/?q=review+score+scandal). And if you think Facebook has a smear campaign on Google but that Apple and Microsoft don’t, I can sell you a bridge at an unbelievable price. (http://gizmodo.com/5327640/hallelujah-fcc-investigating-apple-for-google-voice-app-rejection)

    So yes, call out Facebook and Burson-Marsteller. If the Code of Ethics is real, we need to go further than the scandal of the moment.

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