A complaint too often heard from Public Relations pros is, "We get no respect."
It's not hard to see why many in this field feel that way. We often get ignored by the media, with pitches and calls unanswered. Clients think what we do is easy and that all you have to do to get coverage is be good friends with a reporter or producer.
Ours is not an easy field, and it's hard to earn respect... from media and from clients. Some lack of respect may, unfortunately, be justified because many in PR act less than professionally. I cringe when I hear friends in the media tell stories about PR people who call constantly, never taking no for an answer and lying, begging or crying to convince a reporter to use a story or interview a client. I've heard too many stories about PR people who are then unresponsive when a reporter finally does call for information. And of course, there are more stories about poorly written news releases.
Those in PR who do conduct ourselves professionally often have to work even harder to prove ourselves because of the badwill caused by the PR hacks and untrained/unsupervised junior people.
One would think that one of the top-ranked and oldest PR agencies in the nation would have high standards for all aspects of the work it does, and especially in terms of ethics. That's why it's disheartening to read that Burson Marsteller has seriously breached the ethics of our profession.
It's come out today that Burson has been waging a smear campaign against Google, on behalf of its client Facebook. USA Today earlier had reported that Burson was trying to convince media people to write negative stories about privacy concerns with a Google G-mail product called Social Circle. Evidently, this has been going on for several days, without Burson saying who was actually behind the negative assertions. The information Burson was spreading for Facebook has, in fact, turned out to be false.
I don't care one bit whether or not the assertions about Google are true. It is 100% wrong and unethical to try to plant stories in the media without disclosing where they are coming from. The highly-paid bigwigs at Burson should know better, and they should have ensured that their middle managers know and adhere to a basic code of ethics.
Fraser Seitel, a respected PR practicioner and counselor, had this to say in Ragan's PR Report: “Good, solid, substantial firms, like these, should conduct themselves ethically above board,” Seitel said. “If Facebook has problems with Google, then it should have the confidence and decency to express the reasons why, from the mouth of a Facebook executive. Sneaking around, conducting negative research, surreptitiously placing anonymous hit pieces, based on one-sided bias, is normally associated with PR bottom feeders in Washington and L.A., not respected firms like Burson.”
The PRSA (not one of my favorite trade groups) has a code of ethics that frowns upon such behavior. A comment in one of the PR trade journals today quotes PRSA Chairman Rosanna Fiske as saying only 14 of the 2,200 Burson employees are PRSA members and therefore subject to its code of conduct.
Hogwash! As one of the biggest PR agencies globally, Burson has an obligation on many fronts, including to the PR profession as a whole, to uphold high ethical standards. This behavior is what one might expect of a "hack" PR shop or a K Street lobbying firm in DC, pulling stuff out of its bag of political dirty tricks. Remember Nixon's Watergate scandal?
Shame on Burson Marsteller for putting a stain on the Public Relations profession! You, of all agencies, should know better.
No doubt, we'll be hearing more about this as the story unfolds and gets spun. But the damage is done, and now here's another reason we get no respect. Because when a shop like Burson pulls crap like this, maybe we simply don't deserve respect.