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 responses to “The Ethics of Whisper Campaigns”

  1. FeliciaCago says:

    We haven’t heard the end of #Faceboogle.

  2. 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?

  3. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  4. ginidietrich says:

    @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 they have to work around their guiding principles, where is the accountability?

  5. KenMueller says:

    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 we (the corporate, worldwide “we”) still be interested in this in a month? And BM has a lot more to lose because people actually have to hire them for them to make money. People aren’t going to leave Facebook over this.

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

  7. sydcon_mktg says:

    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.

  8. Marijean says:

    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.

  9. cubanalaf says:

    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 only reported on if someone gets caught. They responded poorly and basically threw up their hands with a “my bad” and pushed FB under the bus.

    I know that BM has an ethics course that they make all employees take – but I wonder if anyone stood against this behind the scenes. I think that fear plays a big role in ethics, and it’s not always because of ignorance or blatant disregard for what this profession stands for.

    Perhaps we will never know.

    Lauren

  10. KatieFassl says:

    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.

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

  12. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  13. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  14. ginidietrich says:

    @sydcon_mktg Ha! What a great analogy!

  15. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  16. ginidietrich says:

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

  17. ginidietrich says:

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

  18. cubanalaf says:

    @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 scared like no other.

    You’re right, they should know better. I just think it happens way more often than is reported.

  19. KenMueller says:

    @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.

  20. BestRoofer says:

    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.

  21. @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

  22. EricaAllison says:

    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.

  23. KenMueller says:

    @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. The most recent post on Harold Burson’s blog is, interestingly enough, a definition of PR. Hmmm. I wonder what he thinks!

    If there handling of this both internally and publicly is how they would advise a client in a crisis situation, well….that’s speaks volumes.

  24. M_Koehler says:

    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 much quicker then pre-internet days.

  25. burgessct says:

    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 them (when throwing snowballs was against the rules. What FB needs is an adult or two in their hierarchy.

    Thanks, as always for saying what needed to be said.

    Cheers,Christopher

  26. EricaAllison says:

    @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 mess and think, “no way, no how!” That’s what I want to know…

    How are Kenneth Cole, the agency that handled the Detroit/Chrysler tweet, Groupon or GoDaddy faring after their debacles? I know I should go check it out, but @ginidietrich is so good at that! 🙂

  27. JayDolan says:

    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…

  28. davevandewalle says:

    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?”

  29. rdempsey says:

    @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…

  30. Lisa Gerber says:

    @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.

  31. rdempsey says:

    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 complete BS and obviously doesn’t want anyone to know.

    Hipocritical? Absolutely.

  32. rdempsey says:

    @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 was a very busy night.

    Now the sum of money they would have lost may have been somewhat significant for the pub, but the risk was huge. I suppose that cook thought the risk was worth it for the payoff. I didn’t and I quit.

  33. rdempsey says:

    @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 🙂

  34. wabbitoid says:

    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.

  35. GayleJoseph says:

    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.

  36. adamtoporek says:

    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 that they are going semi-dark and engaging in nominal damage control to minimize their footprint in mass media. Stay out of it, take your lumps in the blogosphere, and let the big headlines and most of the ink stay focused on Facebook and Google. (I did a quick survey of headlines and it seems BM is not named specifically in many of them.)

    If this is the case, then its seems like BM is letting their client take the flak while they slip away in the shadows.

  37. CristerDelaCruz says:

    @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!”

  38. EricaAllison says:

    @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.

  39. EricaAllison says:

    @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.

  40. KatieFassl says:

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

  41. KatieFassl says:

    @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.

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

  43. TheJackB says:

    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 don’t have or ignore them.

    Almost twenty years ago a client told me that if I provided a woman for him he would spend a lot of money with me. A decade after that I was instructed to threaten a prospective customer. They were supposed to be told to buy ad space or suffer through the bad press that would follow.

  44. arthury says:

    @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 or regulatory authority over the public relations profession. We have no manner of recourse against anyone other than the 32,000 individuals who, in joining PRSA, pledge to abide by our code (more on PRSA’s ability to “enforce” its Code of Ethics may be found at http://ow.ly/4VIGj).

    Our willingness to take a stand against B-M’s actions is why our Chair was quoted on the issue in the FT, USA Today, NY Times, WSJ, AdAge, PRWeek and elsewhere. Frankly, you might compare and contrast what PRSA has done to what other public relations professional organizations, such as the Council of PR Firms (of which B-M is a client paying $40K annually) and The Arthur W. Page Society have done, which is exactly nothing.

    Arthur Yann is vice president of public relations for PRSA.

  45. DannyBrown says:

    Acronyms for BM:

    Big Mess

    Bollock Munchers

    Blameless Me

    Butt Munchers

    Below Muck

    Bank Money

    Blowhard Muppets

    Bloody Mental

    Bash Media

    Backstapping Munchwipers

  46. burgessct says:

    @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”

    All the best,

    Christopher

  47. jeffespo says:

    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 areas above start the slip n slide. Sooner or later you get caught and wind up with mud on your face.

  48. jeffespo says:

    @DannyBrown You forgot Bowel Movement.

  49. Lisa Gerber says:

    @DannyBrown My vote is Bollock Munchers

  50. KDillabough says:

    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

  51. @DannyBrown

    Bigtime Moolah

    Bloomin’ Munyons

    Barfshining Moneygrabbers

    Bilgepumping Media

    Bile-eating Monkeys

    OK. I’m spent.

  52. ginidietrich says:

    @arthury @johnfalchetto @Sean McGinnis Thanks Arthur! It’s certainly disappointing we don’t have a governing body that can hold our profession accountable for these kinds of things. I certainly understand what the guiding principles are and why there is no recourse. I just wish there were.

  53. mdbarber says:

    @cubanalaf Good point Lauren. I wonder what the solution is here. For junior public relations professionals, working for a big agency is good on the resume and also, normally, pretty good professional development. Yet, I also understand the fear factor where they would be afraid to speak up. I also see @ginidietrich’s point about the senior staff. They seem awfully involved in this and that’s the part I really don’t understand. Where is B-M’s commitment to ensuring their teams, at all levels, are aware of the PRSA Code of Ethics but also making sure their “life” code of ethics is normal. We’re all talking about PRSA’s code, but it seems to me that lying and withholding information is part of everyone’s code, not just PRSA’s.

  54. HowieSPM says:

    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.

  55. HowieSPM says:

    Isn’t this Karl Rove tactics BTW?

  56. FocusedWords says:

    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.

  57. Success4Coaches says:

    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.

  58. ginidietrich says:

    @rdempsey @FeliciaCago I’m not sure that’s it. I think the blogger/PR pro issue is how the pitching and relationships occur.

  59. ginidietrich says:

    @KenMueller I think quite the opposite – I think there are PLENTY of big companies who would love to smear their competition. We have a client who would love it. He always tells me I’m no fun because I put the kibosh on it every time. And I always respond with, “I may be no fun, but I’ll keep you out of jail.”

  60. ginidietrich says:

    @mdbarber @cubanalaf I always look back at my own big agency experience (where Lauren now is) and think about what would have happened in the KC office if any of us had pulled this. Maybe it happened at the executive level and we were protected, but I know ethics were HUGE in the work we did. I’m pretty sure any of us would have been fired for behaving this way.

  61. ginidietrich says:

    @BestRoofer I know not all PR is good. And I know this crap goes on. It’s just really, really disappointing.

  62. ginidietrich says:

    @EricaAllison @rdempsey @KenMueller I am beyond words. Seriously beyond words. But you know what? This is rampant in some of the big agencies. Their updated Twitter stream is from two days ago? Their blog says nothing? What is this? 2005?

  63. ginidietrich says:

    @M_Koehler This is what it means: A global PR firm was hired by Facebook to spread lies about Google in the media. They wanted Huffington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the NY Times, and other major media to write a story about Social Circle that wasn’t true. And they were caught. And, for the PR industry, this is a HUGE blow.

  64. mdbarber says:

    @ginidietrich @cubanalaf I completely agree Gini. I worked at another big agency (hugely valuable experience) and feel the same about them. I didn’t work at B-M but my former agency was “caught” in an ethical issue as well. It surprised me as I didn’t expect it, based on what I experienced. But my experience was in the mid-’80s so I just have to wonder what has transpired since to make these things seem okay.

  65. ginidietrich says:

    @JayDolan Oh I love Facebook! It’s my own personal stage. What I hate is how a PR firm that is supposed to be one of the best in reputation management just screwed our industry badly.

  66. ginidietrich says:

    @burgessct TOTALLY AGREE with this perspective, Christopher! And what better counsel that would have been from BM. We’re happy to help you with this if YOU do the talking. We’ll get you the interviews, but you have to talk about why you think this is hurting people.

  67. ginidietrich says:

    @CristerDelaCruz @davevandewalle I’d be using my Gmail account.

  68. ginidietrich says:

    @rdempsey It makes me really, really sad. @Sean McGinnis told me this morning this blog post was missing my normal fire. It’s because I’m so deeply disappointed, I don’t have any snark in me. Facebook won’t lose users. Google won’t lose users. But the PR industry will continue to be known as spin doctors who do what they can to get media coverage. It’s total BS.

  69. ginidietrich says:

    @wabbitoid No. Shit.

  70. ginidietrich says:

    @GayleJoseph It’s a HUGE slap in the face. It created such a great opportunity for managing the reputation of the PR industry. Instead they’ve buried their heads in the sand. So sad.

    BTW. I’m still waiting for more on your NFL story. I want more, more, more!

  71. ginidietrich says:

    @EricaAllison @adamtoporek Except for those of us who are in the PR industry will have our friends and family say, “Oh yeah. I know what you do. Remember that PR firm that tried to spread lies about Google?” And then we have to keep fighting the fight.

    I suppose you’re right, Adam, that they’re trying to minimize their footprint in the mass media. But, from a reputation management standpoint, this isn’t the right way to do it.

  72. ginidietrich says:

    @TheJackB I know you’re right. I like to pretend there is good in everyone, but that’s just not true. There are individuals and companies who will short cut and work unethically in every industry. I get that. But the PR industry is down there with used car salesmen and lawyers and I’m tired of it (hence Spin Sucks). This is hugely disappointing to me, personally and professionally.

  73. ginidietrich says:

    @Sean McGinnis @DannyBrown @jeffespo This made me laugh SO HARD!

  74. ginidietrich says:

    @jeffespo I really, really, really hope you’re wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t think you are. And now my vision of changing the perception of the PR industry is going to even harder. Great.

  75. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  76. KyleAkerman says:

    @ginidietrich @KenMueller I can see the new billboards now: Arment Dietrich – We’ll Keep You Out of Jail

    But seriously, I know it’s tough leading the good fight. The fact you do it publicly surely inspires the sections of the PR world that want to do things the right way.

  77. ginidietrich says:

    @HowieSPM 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

  78. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  79. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  80. KDillabough says:

    @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!

  81. FocusedWords says:

    @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.

  82. ginidietrich says:

    @FocusedWords And I LOVE you for that! Thank you.

  83. KnealeMann says:

    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!

  84. wabbitoid says:

    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)

  85. balemar says:

    @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.

  86. rtrviews says:

    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.

  87. 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®

  88. barryrsilver says:

    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.

  89. bdorman264 says:

    @Lisa Gerber @DannyBrown Yeah, I was going to go w/ bollock munchers and only DB could roll that out………

  90. Success4Coaches says:

    Keep the fight going! It’s what makes you real and what just might make them think….a little! @ginidietrich

  91. bdorman264 says:

    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.

  92. EricaAllison says:

    @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.

  93. rdempsey says:

    @ginidietrich @Sean McGinnis As a non-PR professional who likes PR people (I see a lot of value in the combination of marketing & PR) I don’t let one big apple spoil the bunch. This is also why I prefer, generally speaking, to work with smaller firms as much as possible. Ethics typically stay intact. The larger the company the more likely they are to fly out of the window for a contract.

    Based on what I’ve seen (the email, the total BS response or lack thereof from BM) my assumption is that BM got paid a bunch of money, engaged in what is “accepted” in parts of the industry but many would consider unethical and complete BS tactics.

    Will I leave Facebook over this? No. Will I stop using a ton of Google Apps? No. Do they both know this? I’m sure they do. But do I think less of these companies? You betcha.

    If you can’t stand on your own merits and position accordingly, then perhaps you have to reconsider your USP and how/why you’re in business.

  94. rdempsey says:

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

  95. CarmenKrushas says:

    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.

  96. HowieSPM says:

    @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.

  97. HowieSPM says:

    @ginidietrich I had no clue who the company was. But I know who Facebook is! LOL

  98. ginidietrich says:

    @CarmenKrushas 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.

  99. ginidietrich says:

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

  100. ginidietrich says:

    @barryrsilver I guess the shoemaker’s children have no shoes, in this case.

  101. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  102. ginidietrich says:

    @RTRViews You know, that’s a REALLY good point!

  103. ginidietrich says:

    @HowieSPM @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.

  104. ginidietrich says:

    @KnealeMann 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.

  105. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  106. ginidietrich says:

    @rdempsey Amen!

  107. ginidietrich says:

    @KyleAkerman HAHAHA! That’s like those icky ambulance chasers. No thank you!

  108. 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!

  109. ginidietrich says:

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

  110. FocusedWords says:

    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 @RTRViews 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.

  111. wabbitoid says:

    @ginidietrich Touché, ma soeur ! 🙂

  112. barryrsilver says:

    @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?

  113. GayleJoseph says:

    @ginidietrich LOL. I’m unlikely to blog about the back story, but when the season starts, you can be sure you’ll hear more. Are you sure you want that? 🙂 Meanwhile, I’ll dig up some of the press coverage for the easiest way to share our story or you can do a search on my big guy…Nick McDonald…and me.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this BM/Facebook issue!

  114. bdorman264 says:

    @ginidietrich $20?

  115. ginidietrich says:

    @bdorman264 I hope it has a few more zeros!

  116. RickRice says:

    @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.

  117. barryrsilver says:

    @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.

  118. RickRice says:

    @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.

  119. mdbarber says:

    @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.

  120. RickRice says:

    @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.

  121. mdbarber says:

    @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)

  122. ginidietrich says:

    @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?”

  123. ginidietrich says:

    @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.

  124. FocusedWords says:

    @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.

  125. ginidietrich says:

    @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?!

  126. FocusedWords says:

    @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!” 😀

  127. barryrsilver says:

    @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?

  128. ginidietrich says:

    @FocusedWords LOL! Same for me.

  129. […] 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 […]

  130. […] 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. […]

  131. […] 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 […]

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

  133. […] 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. […]

  134. […] 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 […]

  135. […] 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 […]

  136. […] 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 […]

  137. […] 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 […]

  138. […] 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 […]

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

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

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

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

  143. […] 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 […]

  144. […] A customer could have it out for you and spread lies through their Facebook page. A competitor might engage in a whisper campaign against you. The only way to win at the game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or […]

  145. […] racist online. A customer could spread lies about you through his Facebook page. A competitor might engage in a whisper campaign against you. The only way to win the game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or on […]

  146. […] racist online. A customer could spread lies about you through his Facebook page. A competitor might engage in a whisper campaign against you. The only way to win the game is to be prepared, have a communications expert on your team (or on […]

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