Before starting things off, a disclaimer: I am no expert on public relations or ethics. I have never taken classes or studied extensively the nuances of either subject. I will probably miss a point, and you, my internet superheroes, must aid me in finding it. Or simply point out my sheer dumbness – that usually works, too.
Sultans of Spin (and other catchy, derogatory names for PR practicioners)
Before getting down and dirty with the nitty-gritty of an all-out thinking-things-like-a-grown-up spiel, I’d like to present my personal interpretation of common PR function as I’ve seen it as the outsider to the field I am:
This is basically it. Granted, the first chapter of our text made me realize PR folk do more than sweep up corporate messes, but even so. I still have this pretty solid image of picking at a mass description of a company with a Wite-Out pen and omitting all the nasty words capable of making a consumer crinkle his/her nose. It’s not lying, per se, but it’s certainly not being wholly honest. That’s how I feel.
And recent news on high-stakes internet fights doesn’t exactly give me much to change my mind.
The Internet is serious ethical business
Look, here: Facebook hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to get negative press published against Google’s new Social Circle feature. Worse (but most likely not the firm’s fault) was the fact FB kept their name out of it, claiming the goal was public awareness rather than sticking it to one of their greatest rivals:
“No ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended. Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles, just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose,” a spokesman said. “The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.”
Is it true? Is it a lie? Who even knows! I don’t! I highly doubt everyone hearing about this takes time out to check up on this firm’s reputation. Judging from its website, Burson-Martseller’s more into bringing us Swedish goods and making Transitions lenses look way more exciting than they actually are.
So was this Facebook’s fault for getting the ball rolling, or the folks at Burson-Martseller for rolling with it? Was it ethical?
Well, the Public Relations Society of America’s famed Code of Ethics gives me a mixed message. On the one hand, the very first point presses the need to “protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.” It says nothing of positive or negative; telling folks about the privacy aspects of Social Circle is a-OK. It’d be ethical to do so, I think! At least…It’d be ethical for Google to have said so in the first place.
On the other, I scroll and see another set of points – “code guidelines.” And this, as point number two:
Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.
Granted, whenever I hear “guidelines,” I hear that guy in “Pirates of the Caribbean” when he’s called out on breaking the pirate code: “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules…”
Also, who’s to say Burson-Marsteller even signs onto this code? All I see on its site is an adherence to the WPP Code of Business Conduct, which does indeed protect the privacy of a client…but doesn’t that clash with PR ethics?
Lofty ideals or low blows?
Facebook was never named as this little whisper campaign was making its way through top-tier publications. Actually, it was only revealed when one of the bloggers approached refused and posted the email pitches!
Like I said at the start – I’m no expert on this. I do understand, however, that codes and guidelines are not rules – rather, good advice to follow in the field if you’d like to be not considered a jerk. Our text touches on this troubling balancing act, complete with handy visual aid on page 182. There are situations where one has to consider their own ethics, their employer’s and their client’s simultaneously.
There’s also talk of a “contingency theory,” wherein practitioners sometimes have to back their client 100 percent (p. 183) out of moral obligation. Was pointing out Social Circle’s new features something falling into this vein?
I’ll tell you what I think. I think if Facebook truly holds the belief in their claimed cause – that this was a case in the cause of social awareness about a hot-button topic – their name should have been public from the get-go. Burson-Martseller shouldn’t have been involved – at least, not in the whole hey-USA-Today-I-got-some-dirt-for-you-nudge-nudge-wink-wink way it seems to be reported as.
Then again, historically, perhaps this isn’t that bad? I mean, back in the day, there was a whole progression of thought in PR pertaining to the public’s right-to-know. Dr. Shannon A. Bowen points this out in her history of ethics in public relations.
But that’s back in the day. Bowen covers well beyond Ivy Lee’s principles of public knowledge of long ago, presses on about how vital ethics has become as the profession expanded and changed. She notes a dire lack of ethics training in younger PR practitioners, which could, perhaps, account for this shady little misstep.
And to be honest, I haven’t heard any buzz about this little drama. I had to dig to find it. It leads me to believe this isn’t too new or unusual – only the scale and prominence of the two web lords makes it the story it is. Who’s to say this kind of thing isn’t practiced regularly, perhaps under the assumption of public interest. And money.
Like Aladdin said: You’re only in trouble if you get caught.
But, hey. Nobody’s perfect! Thank goodness for butt pats like this one from the Wakeman Agency, right? If anything, Burson-Marsteller can at least rest assured their staff is potentially more ethical than a veterinary student.
So, did I learn anything?
I don’t think the PR firm lied about anything. I think what they did was shady in a childish sense – catty, even. Like kids at recess elbowing each other and passing around rumors. Don’t say where you heard this, but Jimmy eats glue! Except someone got paid a lot of money to tell everyone about Jimmy eating glue.
I’d like to think this firm is better than taking money from such a digital behemoth like Facebook, but I have to be honest. Dollar signs are very important. I don’t doubt dollar signs swayed the decision to go with this plan – what company decisions aren’t about money in some form, anyway?
But it still leaves me with a sour feeling. My feelings on PR remain closer to the cynical side in light of this case, though I am aware there is much more to the profession than playing telephone with rival companies.
I can only wonder, though…had that blogger not posted his emails as proof, what kind of story would this wind up being? Would Burson-Martseller have kept quiet? I hope not.
For your browsing pleasure, related links:
- The emails sent to Christopher Soghoian, the blogger who said “no”
- The Daily Beast: Facebook Busted in in Clumsy Smear Attempt on Google
- Burson-Martseller: Vision, Mission & Ethics