Advocacy Ethics Thought Leadership

PR Pros: Haven’t We Learned Anything About Disclosure?

After reading USA Today’s expose on an alleged “whisper campaign” waged by Burson-Marsteller (B-M) on behalf of an unnamed client Facebook, which was intended to stir a privacy controversy concerning Google’s Social Circle Gmail feature, I said to myself, “Oh, no, say it isn’t so.”

PRNewser published a rundown of the ethical dilemma B-M now faces. In case you missed these stories, B-M staffers — led by CNBC ex-anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio — apparently had engaged reporters and bloggers about Social Circle, claiming a variety of personal-privacy concerns about Google products and services that the company wasn’t disclosing to users.

In an email to former FTC researcher and blogger Christopher Soghoian, Mercurio solicited Soghoian’s interest in writing an op-ed along those lines, which Mercurio even offered to ghost write. At the same time, Goldman was pitching the story to USA Today.

Seemingly unbeknownst to Mercurio and Goldman, however, Soghoian posted online the full text of his email exchange with Mercurio — including asking, “Who’s paying for this [campaign]?” and Mercurio’s response that he “can’t disclose my client yet.”

After seeing Soghoian’s post and fact-checking Goldman’s pitch (finding large portions of it factually incorrect), the public relations firm became the story.

And, if true, that story is unflattering. The articles in USA Today and PRNewser both portray B-M as trying to shield the identity of its client and as circulating misleading, if not false, information.

What about history?

This story could have ended much differently, assuming B-M had revealed the client it was representing, been upfront with reporters about its clients’ intentions and relied on facts to support its argument.


As a profession, don’t we learn from our mistakes?

The past six years have seen a variety of high-profile ethical flaps by public relations firms and their clients. From fake news to fake blogging to fake press conferences, the public relations profession has, unfortunately, had its fair share of ethical lapses in recent years. And now, here come allegations that one of the world’s most respected and successful public relations firms is engaging in practices that are unethical and improper under the PRSA Code of Ethics.

One of the six core tenets of our Code (full disclosure: only 14 of B-M’s 2,200 global employees are PRSA members and, as such, have agreed to abide by the Code) is honesty. Specifically, PRSA members must “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” (e.g., a client whom the firm is operating on behalf for a specific campaign) and should “avoid deceptive practices.”

Under the PRSA Code, B-M would be obligated to reveal its client and to disclose the client’s intentions, which appear to amount to an attack upon Google’s practices.

Of course, PRSA is not the only public relations professional organization with a Code of Ethics. The Council of PR Firms, the Arthur Page Society and IABC all have their respective codes, and we’re curious to hear what these organizations will have to say about this matter.

Don’t we all bear a responsibility to use these “teachable moments” to advance as professionals and to advance the profession as a whole?

As for PRSA, we’re moving more aggressively than ever to raise the issues our members care about, and chief among them is the ethical practice of public relations. It’s not that ethical public relations equals good public relations; it is, however, that those who do not practice ethical public relations affect all of us, regardless of the environment in which we work, and the causes we represent.

An infraction upon one of our own has an impact on how we’re perceived as individuals, how public relations agencies and major companies are perceived as corporate citizens, and how the profession as a whole is perceived.

The level of public trust that public relations professionals seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on a special obligation to operate ethically. The ironic thing is that B-M got exactly what it wanted: a big article in USA Today talking about privacy concerns with Google’s services.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, its tactics in so doing have again called into question public relations professionals’ ethics. In that regard, we all lost.


Update (8:30 a.m. EDT May 12): The secret client that hired B-M has been revealed and confirmed. It was Facebook, reports The Daily Beast. Reportedly, Facebook hired B-M to engage in some unethical practices on its behalf because it is believes that “Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.”

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

About the author

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo & Company, Florida. Fiske was PRSA's Chair and CEO in 2011.


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