Gini Dietrich

The Ethics of Whisper Campaigns

By: Gini Dietrich | May 16, 2011 | 
147

“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.

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147 Comments on "The Ethics of Whisper Campaigns"

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FeliciaCago
FeliciaCago
5 years 13 days ago

We haven’t heard the end of #Faceboogle.

johnfalchetto
5 years 13 days ago

I heard someone was giving a talk about Douchesites and Spindoctors…sounds like a case study for this session at Blog World 🙂

Money talks and beyond the ethics there is the question of simple IQ. Did anyone at BM think ya great we are going to make a bunch of cash but our reputation is going to get shot when we get discovered. Did anyone at BM actually think this would never come out?

I wonder why go negative? Why didn’t BM just offer a campaign which emphasized FB strengths?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago

@FeliciaCago Ha! I love hashtags. I suppose you’re right. It makes me really angry there are so many really good professionals in this industry and all it takes is one instance like this to make us all look bad.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago
@johnfalchetto I think two things happened: 1) This is common place in Silicon Valley so they likely didn’t think anything was wrong with it and 2) The two people working on the campaign are former reporters who were pitched these stories all the time so, again, they didn’t think to go, “Huh. I think this might be unethical.” I didn’t include this in my blog post, but PRSA said there isn’t anything they can do about enforcing the ethics code of conduct because only 14 of BM’s 2200 employees are PRSA members. While I understand it’s a membership organization and… Read more »
KenMueller
KenMueller
5 years 13 days ago
I’m still really scratching my head on this one. I suppose you’re right in your comment to @johnfalchetto that this is so commonplace that they don’t think twice. But it just seems to me that the red flags should go up at the very start of all of this. I think “icky” is the right word on this. But the Icky-factor is high. On the official Icky Scale this ranks in at about 9 Icks (or 9.2 if you are in Canada and using Metric Icks). We seem to have such short memories and we are rather forgiving people. Will… Read more »
Sean McGinnis
5 years 13 days ago

@ginidietrich @johnfalchetto And what would PRSA do if all 2200 were members?

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg
5 years 13 days ago

As I was reading this when the story unfolded, I kept going back to some scenes/quotes from the movie Clueless. This is like high school, where groups of kids make up stories about others to boost their social “klout” and then the popular quote “An overwhelming sense of ickiness had set over first period.”, but in this case “First period” is PR.

Marijean
5 years 13 days ago

BM has specialized in taking on the “icky” — I suppose there are firms that do, and firms that don’t. I know which camp I’ll be in.

cubanalaf
cubanalaf
5 years 13 days ago
A part of this story that isn’t really talked about is the junior staff that were asked to pitch this. You can look at it from a few different angles – how much pushback can they give on this? Would they lose their jobs if they said no? Are they experienced enough to know that this is wrong? Education of junior staff is a big part missing in many agencies when it comes to pitching. By no means am I saying that BM is innocent, because they definitely missed an opportunity here. It’s sad how common this is, but its… Read more »
KatieFassl
5 years 13 days ago

Gini, One of my favorite quotes is, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” How applicable it is, in this situation.

Sean McGinnis
5 years 13 days ago

@KatieFassl One of my all time favorite quotes too Katie. And so applicable here….

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago

@cubanalaf Maybe you’re right, but the two people who were “caught” pitching this story were not junior staff. They were high-level, high-profile, senior former reporters. In other words, people who should know better. And, coming from that side of the fence, they DO know better. I totally agree that, if you’re junior and you’re asked (told?) to do this, you likely don’t fight it (maybe you start looking for a new job), but the people who led this campaign are not just hurting themselves; they’re hurting our industry.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago

@Marijean Yes, I agree. But the industry won’t change and the perception won’t change if we don’t all follow the code of ethics. It’s really, really frustrating.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago

@sydcon_mktg Ha! What a great analogy!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago

@KenMueller I know FB and Google won’t be hurt in this. That wasn’t my point. My point is that Spin Sucks and the industry needs to take a stance. It’s no secret my real vision is to change the perception of our industry by fighting the good fight, but that means holding firms like BM accountable for unethical practices such as these.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago

@Sean McGinnis @johnfalchetto Supposedly, then, there would be some accountability.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
5 years 13 days ago

@KatieFassl And funny…I just saw you use that quote this past weekend!

cubanalaf
cubanalaf
5 years 13 days ago
@ginidietrich I wonder, though, if it was ONLY senior staff pitching this. I’ve never seen a campaign where that occurs. Its a better story for sure if its senior staff/former reporters (and I’m sure they were involved in this manner.) I was involved in an ethical situation at a former agency, and I just ended up quitting. It was pretty difficult at 21 to reach that decision, but I knew at the end of the day that I wasn’t going to tolerate what was happening. However, it took me a month or two to get to that point. I was… Read more »
KenMueller
KenMueller
5 years 13 days ago

@ginidietrich Oh, I understand completely. I’m just curious if they WILL be held accountable. I know you and plenty of others will remember this, but the ones who really matter are the clients who pay them. I haven’t seen any fallout yet from big clients walking away from them. But I hope it happens.

BestRoofer
BestRoofer
5 years 13 days ago

Well Gini, the rumor is that you bike like your pants are on fire, but I’m sure that that’s not the same thing.

The good guys win by not getting the negative publicity. Remember again that not all PR is good. I also think that the good guys win by continuing to build a loyal fan/customer base that can count on them to do the right thing and not be associated with these schlock tactics.

johnfalchetto
5 years 13 days ago

@ginidietrich I would have thought that BM would be a member as an agency not individual members. Sounds like someone doesn’t want to rock the boat and upset some peeps. Which brings back the question, what’s the point of having ethics and code of conducts for an organisation if there are not enforced?

Then again Ghadafi was the head of the UN human rights committee until very recently, so not surprised.

@Sean McGinnis

EricaAllison
5 years 13 days ago

I love how ironic the tag line for BM is…just popped over to their site: “Evidence-Based Communications. Inform. Monitor. Measure.”

You said it, BM, you went about gathering some *evidence* to *base* your *communications* on and then when you were *informed* publicly that your approach sucked, there’s just no end to the *monitoring* of negative discourse and the *measure* to which you’ll sink. Well done.

Thanks for hopping on board the ‘crash and burn PR train’. And once again, there’s a missed opp for education and a win for ethics in PR.

KenMueller
KenMueller
5 years 13 days ago
@EricaAllison I just went to their site as well. INteresting that there is no link on the front page to their official “statement”. Also interesting that their official statement hasn’t been updated. A PR firm that should be in crisis mode hasn’t issued any further official statements. Also on the front page is their Twitter feed, and their last tweet (as of now) from 2 days ago is them apologizing to someone for removing their comments on their Facebook page. THeir official blog has nothing. In fact their blog isn’t really a blog. it’s just news of job appointments, etc.… Read more »
M_Koehler
M_Koehler
5 years 13 days ago
Honestly, I have no idea what any of this means. I guess ignorance is bliss in my case and I’m happy to keep it that way this time. It’ll probably just make my head hurt if I start looking into this. I do know that under the radar, back door agreements such as this are BS, in any industry including the cut throat world of pet food. Unfortunately, they are all too common it seems in this day and age. It seems in this world of getting answers at the touch of a button, dealings like this are getting found/caught… Read more »
burgessct
burgessct
5 years 13 days ago
In the geopolitical realm this would fall under the category of a covert action – in the commercial world I think there is a four-letter word for it “dumb.” In my humble opinion, the attempt to shade the conversation from one perspective to another is fair, as long as it is clear who is speaking – for example, had Zuckerberg (or designee from within FB) stood up and said – I think Google’s privacy stance on xyz is full of donkey-dust – I’ve no issue. I equate this to the school yard – I’ll make the snowballs – you throw… Read more »
EricaAllison
5 years 13 days ago
@KenMueller I agree. I think they’re trying to ’emu’-late that photo Gini had on her CEO post the other day (head in the sand). Unfortunately, it’s a horrid tactic. However, do you really think it will cost them in the long run? I’ve become very jaded lately on the real impacts of these very public idiotic moves. Does the general public really care? Do the high level CEOs and Fortune 500s monitor this and wait to see what BM will do and then say, “they handled it just right, let’s go with them”, or do they seriously look at this… Read more »
JayDolan
JayDolan
5 years 13 days ago

Well, if we all hate Facebook so much now, let’s just leave for other social networks with the same reach and functionality.

Oh wait…

davevandewalle
davevandewalle
5 years 13 days ago

I have friends at Burson – I have told them I think the most important thing they can do is change web domains.

Can you imagine having to send out emails from “bm.com?”

rdempsey
5 years 13 days ago

@EricaAllison @KenMueller @ginidietrich I think the image of the person with their head up their toosh fits this one better. I thought that one of the roles of public relations is to handle very public crises like this?! Perhaps they’re taking some time to figure out how best to respond…

Lisa Gerber
5 years 13 days ago

@cubanalaf @ginidietrich Lauren, you make a great point – whether junior staff were involved in this particular situation or not, you know they ARE used in similar situations, and while some may know right from wrong, this is now way to raise our PR kids.

rdempsey
5 years 13 days ago
Ok I’ll be the first to say it. I’m not at all surprised that Facebook engaged in this type activity. As Gini said in her post, it’s common practice, and it is. A startup marketing consultant I know calls it anti-marketing, basically instead of making yourself look good you make a competitor look bad. If anyone pays a company to withhold their name when they are only want to “bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media” then I would argue that that company knows that their doing is… Read more »
rdempsey
5 years 13 days ago
@cubanalaf @ginidietrich when money comes into play ethics fly out the window faster than Taz can cut through a tree. I’ve seen it in political environments (corruption) and I’ve seen it for smaller sums at lower levels. Not a true parallel story but I quit one cooking job (way back when) when I was told to serve obviously bad chicken wings on wing night. I could smell the chicken when I opened up the walk-in (big fridge) and could see chicken juice on the floor. I told the cook and he told me to wash them off as wing night… Read more »
rdempsey
5 years 13 days ago

@ginidietrich @FeliciaCago so is this one of the reasons that PR and blogger peeps don’t get along? Seems that BM (I can’t get over those initials as they are so fitting for this) got outed by a blogger 🙂

wabbitoid
5 years 13 days ago

We can talk about BM’s ethics (or, at least, make fun of their initials) all we want, but their response to this is far more telling than anything else. They aren’t just unethical, they’re also no goddamned good at PR – even for themselves.

GayleJoseph
5 years 13 days ago

Amen, Gini! I agree with @rdempsey in that I’m not surprised by Facebook’s actions. I am, however, surprised and disappointed by BM’s decision to participate. This was a huge slap in the face to the PR profession.

adamtoporek
adamtoporek
5 years 13 days ago
I’m going to ignore the ethics portion, as it has been covered well here, and just discuss BM’s strategy. @EricaAllison ‘s questions made me think about the WHY behind BM’s response to the crisis. As a non-PR guy, maybe I’m way off base, but here is what I see. Obviously, here at Spin Sucks and in the PR world, BM is the story, but for the rest of the world, the “scandal” is about Facebook. BM is not a consumer brand, and no one outside of media/big business/PR really cares who they are or what they do. My guess is… Read more »
CristerDelaCruz
CristerDelaCruz
5 years 13 days ago

@davevandewalle Funny, had coffee last week w/ a BM friend and when I brought up why he didn’t email from his BM address, he said “Would you?” Then proceeded to tell me he left them 6 weeks ago… followed with a “Whew!”

EricaAllison
5 years 13 days ago

@adamtoporek I would say that’s a fairly accurate assessment, Adam. Sad, but accurate. If that is the case, the next time a PR firm is competing against BM for work, they should remind the potential client that BM likes to leave their clients flapping in the wind like yesterday’s laundry.

EricaAllison
5 years 13 days ago

@rdempsey @KenMueller @ginidietrich I think they’re handling their PR crisis, but not their client’s crisis. The way they’re handling it for themselves is to fade into the background. The way they’re handling it for their client…throw them under the bus.

KatieFassl
5 years 13 days ago

@ginidietrich Turns out, it’s applicable in many different situations in life :).

KatieFassl
5 years 13 days ago

@Sean McGinnis And it’s a perpetual cycle for BM. They are, in fact, “falling for anything.” As @adamtoporek and @EricaAllison pointed out, BM is allowing their client to take the fall, while they hide in the background, quietly licking their wounds.

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

TheJackB
TheJackB
5 years 13 days ago
We live during times in which public figures and entities are publicly shamed repeatedly and then magically reborn. “Celebrities” videotape themselves having sex and then intentionally leak them to the public so that they can do the talk show circuit and pretend to be angry. In regard to the two companies I still maintain that they are 800 pound gorillas who can do what they want with virtual impunity. Unless people feel a direct threat to themselves/family they won’t do anything about it. As far as business ethics go I have been around long enough to see that many people… Read more »
arthury
arthury
5 years 13 days ago
@johnfalchetto @ginidietrich @Sean McGinnis I’d argue that PRSA *did* rock the boat on this one, as we’ve done in the past and will continue to do in the future, consistent with our philosophy on professional ethics. The PRSA Code of Ethics and the professional programming that accompanies it is intended to inspire, focus and illustrate for our members — and the broader public relations profession — what ethical behavior is and is not. Those who want to exact a “pound of B-M’s flesh” will argue that this is not enough; however, as I’ve pointed out previously, PRSA has no legislative… Read more »
DannyBrown
5 years 13 days ago

Acronyms for BM:

Big Mess

Bollock Munchers

Blameless Me

Butt Munchers

Below Muck

Bank Money

Blowhard Muppets

Bloody Mental

Bash Media

Backstapping Munchwipers

burgessct
burgessct
5 years 13 days ago
@TheJackB Sadly true – highly ethical behavior is something that must be demonstrated constantly – I often advise folks if they are having a moral dilemma they need to reconsider their engagement. Ethic also requires work – I believe every entity big or small should be teaching ethics and providing their employees with decision trees they can use to noodle through engagements and situations and where and how to call in help. In this instance, there appear to have been so many opportunities to step back and take the hand off the tiller that were missed. Very nice comment “TheJackB”… Read more »
jeffespo
5 years 13 days ago
I will call it here now. We will see more of this in the future. The main reason being is that the PR industry has become a pack of wolves ravenous for any way to show value to their client. Social Media – we can do that…. Advertorial – we can do that… Ads – Slap “digital” to your agency and we can do that (new revenue stream)… Smear Campaign – What are you paying? well YOU BETCHA.The whole thing is just shady, but PR in general has grown too big for its own boots and grabbing at all the… Read more »
jeffespo
5 years 13 days ago

@DannyBrown You forgot Bowel Movement.

Lisa Gerber
5 years 13 days ago

@DannyBrown My vote is Bollock Munchers

KDillabough
KDillabough
5 years 13 days ago

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

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