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Gini Dietrich

The Ethics of Whisper Campaigns

By: Gini Dietrich | May 16, 2011 | 
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“For years, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, has extolled the virtue of transparency, and he built Facebook accordingly. The social network requires people to use their real identity in large part because Mr. Zuckerberg says he believes that people behave better — and society will be better — if they cannot cloak their words or actions in anonymity,” from the New York Times on May 13, 2011.

Enter Burson Marsteller.

Most of you already know the story. The global PR firm was hired to create a “whisper campaign” about Social Circle, the optional feature of Google search that uses publicly available information from social networks to personalize search results.

The story goes that two very high-profile and former senior reporters turned PR pros worked with media and bloggers to begin digging into Social Circle and writing negative stories about it. When pushed to reveal their client, they refused and a blogger published their email exchange.

It’s been said this is common practice in the Silicon Valley: PR professionals are hired to help create negative stories about one’s competition. But does that make it right?

I’m curious how the initial conversation goes.

Facebook: We’d like to hire you to create negative stories about Social Circles from Google.

BM: Oh this could be fun! Facebook on our roster and going up against one of the largest companies in the world. That’ll be $10MM*.

Facebook: We’ll give you $12MM* if you don’t reveal our name when asked.

BM: Done, done, and done!

Perhaps it wasn’t that blatant, but I can’t really understand how you get to a point that you’re comfortable calling or emailing reporters and bloggers and saying,

Unfortunately the ink was barely dry on the settlement before Google rolled out its latest tool designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users – in a direct and flagrant violation of its agreement with the FTC.

And then, when asked who is paying for you to pursue this story, you say,

Thanks for the prompt reply. I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet. But all the information included in this email is publicly available. Any interest in pursuing this?

At any time do you think, “Wow. This really feels icky to me.”?

And then, when caught, you still don’t take responsibility or action?

This could have been a huge teaching opportunity for BM in the industry; an opportunity for them to say, “The whisper campaigns that are created in Washington and the Silicon Valley are unethical. They are wrong. We’re sorry that we took Facebook on as a client in this instance. These practices are against our policies and the people involved have been fired. The rest of our team, in every office, is now required to revisit our worldwide ethics policy training.”

Then it becomes a non-story. For an organization that has built its brand on reputation management. For an industry that already has a black eye.

Will the good guys ever win?

* I completely made up those numbers. I have no idea how much BM was paid.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

124 comments
PJWright
PJWright

Everyone seems to agree that the issue had to be money. Both on FB and BM's part. I tend to think that it is much closer related to something else. Remember high school when one group would begin a whisper campaign against someone because they saw that person as a.) a threat to their popularity, b.) the person had snubbed someone in the group, c.) the person was taking the spotlight off of someone in the group.....you get the idea. I do think this whole thing was more about showing Google that FB is the important one in today's world and BM jumped in to say "Yeah, I'm important because FB chose me."

I've got to agree with @RickRice The beauty of today's world is that when you start acting like a snarky 13 year old, you get found out fast and the world hears about it instead of just a small group of people.

RamonMartinezJr
RamonMartinezJr

Gini, even if, FB and BM don't learn from this experience it will be a lesson learned by others. At least enough to make others think twice before they do!

CarmenBenitez
CarmenBenitez

I'm glad you took this topic on... You know how I felt about it and I'm in complete agreement with you on the poor, actually poor as hell, job by both FB and BM. I recently met a mentor and he talked to me about competition. And he said he ignores what some may consider his "competition". Reason? Bc the competition will stifle their innovation by constantly trying to better their product/service based off the competition instead of charging that energy towards innovating based off their customer. fB didn't need to stoop to such lows nor did BM need to agree to such a snaky assignment. Short-sided thinking bc they forgot to look internally.

bdorman264
bdorman264

Can it pass the 'smell' test? Obviously not but unfortunately when you bring money into the equation it seems all bets are off for some. Money has the tendency to corrupt...........

Definite ickyness factor and I wish it would just stop.

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

I apologize profusely as this post hit me at the nexus of Social Media and politics. I realize the idea of being in business is to make money. Still the initials BM are short not only for Burston Marsteller but bowel movement as well. The primary difference between the two is that a bowel movement smells nicer and is less distasteful to clean up.

Zuckerberg should know better, but a PR firm should in theory be concerned with it's own PR first.

FranchiseKing
FranchiseKing

Thanks, Gini. One more little wrench to be thrown in;

Let's not forget that the US Government uses FB and Google to get information they need on gosh...anything they want?

Are we going to be reading a headline like this in 20 years?

"'Online Users From 2009-2012 Still Trying to Unravel Fraudulent Personal Data Exposed From The Age of Transparency"

The Franchise King®

RickRice
RickRice

Gini, I actually think there is a bright side to this whole mess, the whisper campaign never got any traction. The more often bad practices like this fail and cost agencies money and clients the sooner we might actually see them stopped.

I'm a bit encouraged that whisper campaigns for undisclosed clients are being caught and stopped more and more quickly these days. That's what is going to stop this. So, while I'd say shame on the people behind it I'd also say congratulations to the bloggers and reporters who wouldn't go for it.

wabbitoid
wabbitoid

I've been thinking about this all day, off and on, and it seems to me that we have all missed the point.

Zuckerman has exactly one thing on his mind - something that no one here has even thought of:

Goldman-Sachs and a $60 billion IPO. Well, more or less $60 bil.

Trashing talking google might appear to be worth tens of billions of dollars to him - more money than any of us can really dream of. What would you sell out your ethics for? Honestly, what would the price be for you? More money than you have ever dreamed of?

My ex-Amish grandfather would say that most people sell out their morals very cheaply. So what would you do for that kind of money?

(not that I mean to defend basefook and a group of people I generally despise - I just like to keep a li'l perspective on things)

Kneale Mann
Kneale Mann

Shocking that golly gee Zuckerkind I'm just a normal guy just tryin' to let people connect paid someone to do something sinister. It's so unlike him and his friends. And this thing about the privacy and those meanies at Google and ...wait, that's call big business and it's been going on ...wait, since we began to walk the earth. Let's keep fighting for the good guys because that is what gets us out of bed in the morning!

Success4Coaches
Success4Coaches

An absolutely fantastic post. I was just discussing the topic of ethical behavior in business with someone. It used to be common practice to work with an ethical foundation. Now it seems like so many of the huge corporations and too many of the smaller ones do whatever it takes to get a job done so as to become the top dogs and gain more and more of the almighty dollar and market share.

One of the things that impressed me so much about MZ and FB in the beginning was that transparency was to be the thread that held the site together. I believe that people do behave better when they have to put their names on their actions. I guess it's same old do as I say and not as I do. No wonder so many of the kids today think that bullying anonymously isn't such a big deal! It's just too bad that this kind of thing is becoming acceptable behavior in the eyes of too many businesses.

PJWright
PJWright

I believe that both sides are to blame in this example of horrible business decisions. If it wasn't BM, FB would have found someone else. And if it wasn't FB, BM would have done this for someone else. In fact BM has succeeded in proving that their actions on the part of any company is suspect. It may seem like the public is ignoring one or the other, but (with rose colored glasses on) I prefer to believe that both sides have been equally tarnished as it should be. Now it is up to the rest of the PR world to condemn both sides and prove to the general public that this isn't representative of the industry.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Facebook Management equals Scumbags. Simple as that. And everyone who supports Facebook from marketing or advertising not caring about Clients or Ethics and just care about making money are the reason used car salespeople are trusted more than Advertising Pros.

Zuckerberg is a slime ball of the biggest magnitude. He blows Bono away on the Couric Scale from South Park. And when Facebook goes IPO and fleeces people and then disappears eventually like AOL or Myspace some people will have made a mint. And everyone else will be scarred and hating on social media.

Is anyone surprised at this? Would you be surprised if Facebook stole computers from Google? Or sold your credit card info? Or your home phone number? Would be surprised if Facebook took all your photos and sold them (they can) without your permission to make money on you?

If you answered yes and you are actually alive and breathing I want the drugs you are on.

No not ethical any of this Gini.

KDillabough
KDillabough

I'm not a PR professional, but we're all in public relations every day. What was done was simply wrong. It doesn't matter how many others are doing it. It's like the parental mantra of "I don't care what the other kids are doing. This is what we do/ believe in/ behave like."

You're right, @ginidietrich that it seems like the good guys don't win...but we do...in the long run. Cheers! Kaarina

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@FocusedWords Unfortunately you're right. As someone who was the brunt of those campaigns in high school, it really sucks. Too many people have been saying, "Well, this is common practice." And I channel my mom when I say, "If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you too?"

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@RamonMartinezJr I hope so! And I hope some tech PR pros in the Silicon Valley are paying attention to this, too.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@CarmenBenitez That mentor is right! Anytime you try to beat the competition at what they're already good at, you'll lose. But when you innovate and create something they don't have, you'll win. Creating whisper or smear campaigns is gossip and I'm pretty sure that's a sin.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@bdorman264 Money does have the tendency to corrupt. That's why I'm wondering how much makes you think twice.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@FranchiseKing Oh I get all of that. I didn't want this post to be about everything Facebook and Google are doing to collect our data. Nor did I want it to be about whether or not the bad PR would hurt Facebook (doubtful). I wanted it to reflect the poor practices in our industry (Spin Sucks) in order to keep fighting the fight.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@wabbitoid This is the first time a company took so much private money havng so much riding on an IPO. But what Facebook can't do i lie once they go IPO. Every single bit of data they hold back because it makes them look bad will come forward. And it is going to be ugly.

Yet if they don't IPO at 60bil Zuckerberg could wind up killed and next to hoffa. Some of his money sources can do that if they lose too much (russia and china money he took)

Quite a canoodle. I personally hope Wall Street does the right thing which is out the company and let it go IPO at what it is worth say $15bil. Or they might snap it up to resell to suckers in a classic pump and dump.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Kneale Mann Unfortunately I'm not shocked at Facebook doing this. I AM greatly disappointed at, what was once, a well-respected global agency accepting and executing this kind of work. It's really, really saddening.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Success4Coaches It really is too bad. I keep fighting the Spin Sucks fight, but if people see big dollars and instant fame for taking on projects like this, it's going to prove to be a pretty difficult fight.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@FocusedWords I agree with you. My surprise is in that, what is supposed to be one of the best firms in reputation management, took this on. I didn't talk about the issues with Facebook even doing this because I know, deep down, it won't hurt them. But what BM has done hurts me, my profession, and my own company. And that is deeply disappointing to me.

RobertDempsey
RobertDempsey

@HowieG yet another reason not to base an entire business on one website or platform Howie.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@HowieG I'm not surprised at Facebook. I'm surprised at Burson Marsteller. I know there are plenty of PR firms who would be happy (and are) to create smear campaigns for a client's competitors. I just expect better from what most think to be the best in our industry. This isn't about Facebook or Google or Groupon or any other ginormously large company. This is about ethics in my industry. #endofstory

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@KDillabough Such a great point about not doing something just because everyone else is doing it. I told @Lisa Gerber this morning that we're going to grow and we're going to be big enough to be able to change the perception of the PR industry and we're going to make a mistake (or 10). It'll be in how we manage that mistake (I'm sorry anyone?) that will define our business.

PJWright
PJWright

@ginidietrich Moms always know how to stop you in your tracks, don't they? Maybe we should be talking to the Moms of FB and BM.

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

@ginidietrich I wish it were as simple as shoes. The question as to when is enough? regarding $$ is age old. When the answer is there is never enough, nor is there anything I won't do to get more , I can only shake my head. The interesting question is: Did any PR firm turn down FB on their anti-PR campaign?

RickRice
RickRice

@ginidietrich @RickRice Gini, this cr*p has been going on forever in the PR business. In the old days it was plain brown envelopes with no return address delivered to reporters - probably only handled with white cotton gloves.

Yes, people in our business need to get their ethics tuned up and we can hope for some enforcement but that's also been true forever. The only way this 'stuff' is going to stop is when it no longer works. Reporters, bloggers and other PR people need to keep increasing the cost of bad behavior.

Besides it costing agencies clients and money I would hope that individuals who do this get blacklisted by all of us, including the media in all its forms. I always asked reporters about senior level PR people I was thinking about hiring.

I like that it is getting harder to hide things like this and that, when caught, that information spreads broadly and quickly. Some people won't learn but they might think twice if the punishment / costs get high enough. I know, it is a sad commentary but...

On your question about how much money could tempt someone to try it. My answer: Integrity and personal credibility should not be for sale if you want to stay in this business.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@HowieG @wabbitoid Oh I didn't miss that point. I purposely left out of the discussion that point. I wanted this post to be about the PR industry, the terrible practices that happen, and shed light on how we should all being acting ethically, even at the big agencies.

balemar
balemar

@ginidietrich I think you just nailed why this is so upsetting. It's not Facebook's involvement. It's BM's - it's what it does to an industry that's already struggling with a negative and misguided image.

PJWright
PJWright

@ginidietrich @FocusedWords OK, you need to take this as an honest appraisal and not spin sucking. We now know that BM is not one of the best firms. In my opinion and in the future, if I am asked for my opinion, I will steer people to Arment Dietrich because I believe that you will do an honest, professional job and will turn down those jobs that leave you feeling icky. Nuf said.

KDillabough
KDillabough

@ginidietrich @Lisa Gerber So spot on Gini! Taking the high road isn't always the easy one, but it's the right one. And you always take the right one, even when it's tough. You are, and will, change perception through leading by example. We should never stoop to conquer!

PJWright
PJWright

@ginidietrich No, I didn't. I don't remember bullying Moms when I was growing up unless you count the ones that told me "Time to go home!" :D

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@FocusedWords I wonder if those moms would agree with our moms? Speaking of (this is kind of off topic) did you happen to see the news segment NBC is doing on moms who bully?!

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

@ginidietrich It's sad that the SM bigfoot has an image that your firm won't touch. Worse yet, the recent kerfuffle was not about the success of the impending IPO. The IPO will either be hugely successful or massively successful. Can't speak for anyone but me, but hugely successful and clean rep sounds pretty good to me. Where can I sign up?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@barryrsilver We were joking that FB now needs a PR firm. No way I would touch that. In fact, after their 60 Minutes appearance last winter, I wouldn't have touched them.

mdbarber
mdbarber

@rtrviews @barryrsilver @RickRice @ginidietrich I completely agree with you here. Without our personal integrity we have little except raw skill. I do fear, though, that if we don't speak out as Gini has started here & PRSA is doing with their work this week, we are (through our own silence) accepting this type of behavior.

I guess my probably naive hope is that B-M and FB can find a way out of this through a public education program on ethics. Or, a training program for journalists transitioning to PR so they understand the ethics and depth of our profession. I don't know what it is but just really don't want to sweep this under the rug. (not that folks here are sweeping)

RickRice
RickRice

@mdbarber @barryrsilver @RickRice @ginidietrich Mary, I know most people who work for Burson have the right compass and hope I didn't say / imply otherwise. I think we are agreeing here that this is, or should be, about our personal compass, ethics and reputation.

Hard as it is, I've found that you sometimes have to say no, I won't do that. From my POV we've got one critical asset as a 'PR pro' and that is our own personal integrity. Mine is for rent to clients interested in doing the right thing. It is never for sale because, really, my integrity and reputation are all I have in this business. And, I like being in this business.

mdbarber
mdbarber

@barryrsilver @RickRice @ginidietrich this is a really interesting question. I would really like to believe my glass is half full here. I will venture to say not everyone at B-M has questionable ethics. So we have to be a little careful of tossing them all in the same pool. If I worked there I would certainly want to clarify my ethical standards and secure a commitment from management to adhere to ethical practice moving forward. Similar line plats out for taking a job there. I would definitely do more of an ethical/moral compass check thatn I might have last week. As a PR pro, a lot of our reputation is personal and goes with us as we move. I also thnk as PR pros, we need to stressing the importance of our moral compass and not be afraid to say no.

RickRice
RickRice

@barryrsilver @ginidietrich Interesting question Barry. Frankly, Burson is big enough that it will survive this - it has been there and done that. I spent quite a few years at Hill and Knowlton both in the glory years before and than after its reputation was trashed by the questionable ethics of one of its CEOs.

I hesitated to go back to H&K after the dark years until one of my mentors, frankly a legend in the business (Toney File) reminded me that reporters and real influencers (blogs didn't exist) don't really care who you work for. Toney reminded me that those relationships were based on personal trust - not the brand name. As he put it, you can rent them your credibility but keep control of it, because they don't own it no matter what they pay you. Pretty direct quote, "If you don't have the reporters' trust you're career is over. H&K will survive without you. They don't care. You won't survive without the media trusting you."

Back to your question Barry: Should you go to work for BM or any PR firm based on history? I'll be a bit vague and say depends what you think you can get from them. What I won't be vague on is that in this business what matters is who you are; not who you work for.

Working at an agency doesn't make ME credible or not credible. It is my reputation, regardless of who I've worked for / with that makes a difference. If you're going to be in this business and do it well people need to trust YOU no matter who you work for.

As I said earlier, I'm all for calling BS, or SpinSucks, as soon and as often as needed. It is personal and should be about personal integrity.

barryrsilver
barryrsilver

@RickRice @ginidietrich @RickRice I love this reply but I have a question: It has been proven time and again that some businesses (in this case BM) will do anything for money. The question is will any proven professional(s) turn down a job opportunity with BM due to a history of objectionable ethics/clients? Forget the money, someone is always willing to pay for garbage but if there is no talent to execute the plan, $$ don't matter.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@EricaAllison I hope so, Erica. It's a long fight. I may be 100 years old before I can say, "Remember when?" But I hope we get there.

EricaAllison
EricaAllison

@KDillabough @ginidietrich @Lisa Gerber Yay, Gini and Lisa! You will grow and you will be big enough to be able to change the perception of the PR industry; you're already doing it...one blog post, one tweet, one FB update at a time. You're leading by example and that's the best kind of leadership in my opinion.

Trackbacks

  1. […] spin e mais spin e encontrei este artigo que acaba por questionar a ética, ou a falta dela, neste caso […]

  2. […] couple of weeks ago, when the Burson Marsteller/Facebook story broke, many, many, many people called me naive. They stated examples where PR professionals create […]

  3. […] If you missed it, there was a really good comment from Keith Trivitt, associate director of public relations at PRSA, on the Burson-Marsteller/Facebook issue. […]

  4. […] leaders) relate media relations to our jobs because it’s tangible. Pile on top of that the whisper campaigns the global agencies are pursuing, the lack of accountability and communication in the fall of […]

  5. […] Burson-Marsteller/Facebook imbroglio happened while we were at the conference this year. So we were all talking about ethics: […]

  6. […] Earlier this year, Facebook had its hand caught in the cookie jar when it hired global PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, to create and execute a smear campaign against Google. […]

  7. […] May, when it came out Burson Marsteller was working with Facebook to smear Google, I was astounded. After all, they are one of the biggest and best agencies in the world. And Harold […]

  8. […] or a Pollyanna with this one, but I really believe honesty is the best policy. Don’t create whisper campaigns about your competitors, don’t lie to journalists and bloggers, and don’t create […]

  9. […] have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in whisper campaigns against you. The only way to win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on […]

  10. […] could have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in whisper campaigns against you. The only way to win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on […]

  11. […] have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in whisper campaigns against you. The only way to win at that game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on […]

  12. […] PR industry is seen as scummy and shady because of whisper campaigns, astroturfing, media manipulation, and unethical business […]

  13. […] PR industry is seen as scummy and shady because of whisper campaigns,astroturfing, media manipulation, and unethical business […]

  14. […] PR industry is seen as scummy and shady because of whisper campaigns, astroturfing, media manipulation, and unethical business […]

  15. […] PR industry is seen as scummy and shady because of whisper campaigns, astroturfing, media manipulation, and unethical business […]

  16. […] couple of months later, Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to create a whisper campaign against the search engine, in the hopes of dissuading enough people to not investigate Circles and […]