Smear Campaigns Have No Place in PR

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 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.

Using Social Media to Reach Customers in Different Cultures

Any business operating online clearly can’t ignore the benefits offered by social media platforms. This includes companies which are operating in markets abroad, as well as their home countries. However, just as you will have localized your website content for different foreign markets, you’ll need to take a similar strategic approach to your use of social media. Continue reading

Should User Experience Be a PR function? Should Measurement?

I was listening to a podcast from the Measure Mob the other day, and it made me think about what pieces of social media are owned by PR. More specifically, I mean which pieces we are willing to take ownership of.

The Measure Men offered an example about how marketing folks focus a great deal on how they are driving traffic to the website, but they don’t seem to care about bounce rates or conversions. In other words, they’re only focused on what they think is their job: driving the traffic. The user experience once they get there doesn’t seem to matter to them.

But it’s not just marketing. I think a great many of us are guilty of focusing on our own little silo without thinking about the larger picture. You may drive engagement with your online community, but are your efforts somehow driving increased traffic to your customer services department? Shouldn’t you care about that? Continue reading

Targeting Brand Influencers to Shape Your PR Strategy

One of the best ways to shape your social image is understanding how to target and influence lead users within your industry. Lead users are people who shape and impact a community’s way of thinking. They are the people whose opinions trickle down through the web and fall in to the laps of your core customers. Learning to target these key individuals is sometimes difficult, but if done effectively can really cement your online PR efforts. Continue reading

Favoriting Tweets: The Easiest Way To Keep Up on All Your Social Media/PR News Reading

Time and time again, the simplicity of Twitter has been undermined. And simplicity is a beautiful thing when noise in social networks is never going to go away. Even stories in the news might be considered “noise” because, while trying to be relevant, they fail to catch on with the majority. Or maybe it’s the fact that people never see it, and a story, or blog post or forum discussion for that matter, never receives its proper due.

Enter the world of favoriting tweets on Twitter, the primary agent of how I keep up on what’s relevant, timely, and too good not to miss in terms of content. Favoriting, starring, or flagging articles is obviously nothing new, but it’s a must-do if you’re trying to stay abreast on everything important in the PR industry – especially if you have little time to get that juicy nugget of detail, and you’re following 1,000 PR and social media-savvy tweeps. Use it to your advantage! Continue reading

On QR Codes & PR Working with Dictators…

It’s been an exceedingly busy couple of weeks for me, both personally and professionally. (A wedding coming up in two months will do that to you!) I have, though, been actively monitoring many of the issues bubbling up in the PR and marketing space, and I thought I’d very quickly weigh in with a few random thoughts on QR Codes and PR firms working with dictators (two totally disparate topics, I know):  Continue reading

Metrics and Cockfosters

I’ve been a bit delinquent in writing my fair share of posts recently due to my recent vacation to London. I spent one glorious week with my little sister and parents exploring one of the oldest cities in the world.

Continually struck by the historic and surreal atmosphere of the city, I often daydreamed about how different my life could be. What if my ancestors hadn’t left for the new world, would I live in London? Would I still giggle at words like Cockfosters and bangers and mash? (Hang with me for a moment, I promise this isn’t an entirely sentimental and introspective post.) Continue reading

Social Media is not a Magic Hammer

Social media is a wonderful tool that brands and organizations can use to tap into a vast pool of individuals receptive to their messaging. Unfortunately, a misconception exists by too many that have yet to establish a presence that as soon as they jump in, they will see an immense return. Just like any carpenter can tell you, one tool cannot build a house; social media is simply one tool on the belt that builds a successful marketing strategy.

The fact is, there exists only a handful of brands that can expect to create a Twitter or Facebook account and see a mass exodus of people follow right away. For the other 99.999% of the companies not named Apple, the “if you build it, they will come” mentality is completely false. Unfortunately, many organizations interpret this to mean they don’t belong in the game of social networking and abandon all their efforts before they have a chance to ramp up. Continue reading

Who’s Not Talking About Bin Laden?

On May 1, President Barack Obama announced to a live television audience the death of Osama bin Laden.  It was a seminal moment in both the nearly ten year old “War on Terror” and in American history.  However, the days following bin Laden’s death have been filled with missteps that would make even a first-year public relations student’s stomach turn.

The key point in a crisis or important news situation is to have one voice and only that voice should speak. Therefore, no confusion would be caused.  That hasn’t been the case post-bin Laden’s death. CIA Director Leon Panetta opened up a can of worms when he said to NBC News that, “ultimately,” a photo of the dead Al Qaeda leader would be shown. Panetta did several other interviews, including one with Time magazine. Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, even stated that he expected a photograph would be released “fairly soon.” Continue reading