“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.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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