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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Friday, May 13, 2011

PR Guerillas In Our Midst

All the talk about U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6, clandestine missions and assassinations must have gotten PR firms feeling real frisky. How else would you explain what public relations power house Burson-Marsteller recently got caught doing (or trying to do) to Google.

By now, if you’re in the field of public relations you’ve heard or read that Facebook put out the proverbial hit on a potential social media rival. And how did they attempt this feat, by calling on one of the PR industry “Big Boys” to launch a secret reputation damage-ment campaign. I told you before, the Empire Strikes Back!

Now the news here is not that a major brand got involved in some competitive monkey business with another major brand that threatened a core product. That happens, rightfully or not, all the time in the business world. After all, only the strong survives.

No, what’s news is that Burson-Marsteller (BM), a seemingly reputable firm that recently received the North American Agency of the Year award, actually accepted such a smarmy, ethics challenging assignment. Especially knowing that if they got caught (which actually happened) they had so much to loose in terms of reputation currency.

I can’t imagine that this very public foul play sat well with the remainder of the agency’s client portfolio (which by the way reads like the who’s who in the recognizable brand community). Reputation management is bad enough when a company is dealing with its own issues, so being close enough to get some stink on your brand due to someone else’s bad judgment is problematic.

Where was the leadership or the voice of reason at BM to step up and say, “No, we won’t engage in such a practice because that’s not who we are as an agency.” But that didn’t happen.

I can recall an instance when an employer asked me to do something unethical as a PR professional and I refused. I don’t engage in dishonest or questionable public relations practices because that’s not who I am and by doing so, I run the risk of hurting my personal brand. So I found what BM engaged in even more troubling.

Not only did the agency take on this high stakes, daring mission to assassinate a potential future client, but they used two converted journalists as operatives. Beyond the decision to do the job in the first place, the usage of former news men is what puzzled many, because they should’ve known better.

When this Bay of Pigs styled mission was discovered, BM went all Ollie North and refused to out their benefactor and puppet master. However, that outing would happen with some journalistic investigation. If there is one thing the media loves to do, it’s to go after and nail unethical PR types. It’s like nectar to the scribe gods and then they hang the pelts out for all to see.

This is not the first time we’ve seen this type of thing in our profession. Dick Armey of Freedom Works fame successfully used a PR agency in an Astroturf campaign against the Obama Administration’s Healthcare Bill. Armey’s PR guerillas succeeded at making something as socially necessary and desired as healthcare, seem like something dark, menacing and anti-American. They were able to convince the media and unsure voters that this was somehow bad for them and fit to be destroyed.

While public relations can be broken down into many different disciplines, I don’t think character assignation should be one of them. PR should never want to play in this space.

We can overlook stuff like Armey’s Astroturfing because it’s political. But this sort of unethical behavior coming from a top five global PR agency was a little hard to stomach. Even the Chairman and CEO of the PRSA offered uneasy thoughts on the situation.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this action, especially given the fact that BM is head by Mark Penn, the same person who handled Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. He’s also the same guy who put the media hit job on current President Barrack Obama during the primaries. So maybe this is who they really are and it all stems from the top down.

Here’s the only thing BM has said about this issue so far: Statement

Now when we see a slew of unfavorable media coverage on a particular brand, we may have to ask ourselves the question, which public relations agency is behind this?

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