Monday, May 16, 2011

Where was Burson's and Facebook's Moral Compass?

The blind eye toward ethics illustrated by both Burson and Facebook as part of a PR campaign directed at Google really gets under my skin. This is not about the antitrust and privacy concerns that are raising the eye brows of federal regulators and policy-makers (I get to this later in the post).

For those of you who may have missed it, Facebook retained Burson-Marsteller for a campaign that seemed to be aimed primarily at Google. Two former journalists from Burson pitched editorials to the media without disclosing the name of their client. The content was about Google's supposed anti-competitive behavior. I first read about it in USA Today last week. 

This is about PR people showing poor judgement that is detrimental to our field. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) clearly spells out that we should be transparent when dealing with the media or any third party for that matter. The thing is, the former journalists at Burson and the Facebook PR people are smart and know this. So it begs the question: why do it especially given the risk of any digital communication with journalists coming out was so high? That's a question that both Facebook and Google need to answer.

I do understand what Facebook was trying to accomplish. Don't get me wrong; every organization has a right to convey its messages to the public and defend its position as long as it is transparent and ethical. Given the scrutiny on Facebook right now, an alternative strategy could have employed the following tactics:

  • Weave in messaging about Google's practices (backed by third party proof points) into Facebook's interactions with the media -- but in a way that does not allow Google to dictate Facebook's PR strategy (the way it comes across now is that Facebook is fearful of Google making a big social media play).
  • Pursue editorial board meetings with top media with the agenda focused directly on the concerns surrounding Facebook's business practices.
  • Place an op/ed about Facebook's approach to privacy (from Facebook) -- weaving in Google when appropriate -- that includes validation from antitrust experts. 
Instead, Facebook chose to let a competitor get the best of them and the backlash is having a negative impact. When Facebook approached Burson with the assignment, I hope that the agency counseled them to employ a transparent approach and also warn them to the potential backlash if they didn't. If Facebook forced the issue, at that point, Burson should have turned away the business.  Having worked for PR firms in the past, I understand the pressure to win new business. However, it should never be at the cost of our ethics.

Where was Burson's and Facebook's moral compass? As PR people, our role includes strategic counsel to do what is not only best for the organization, but also is right -- even in the face of competitive pressure or pressure from senior management. Those responsible owe an apology to the PR profession and the media.

Antitrust Issues

Ethical lapses aside, Facebook and Google are now facing the music when it comes to antitrust and privacy concerns. What boggles my mind is that technology companies seem to never learn from the previous experiences of their brethren. IBM in the 1980's and Microsoft and Intel in the 1990's.  Companies seem to shun Washington policy-makers until the point hearings are called and investigations are opened.  At that point, it's almost too late; and it's also costly from a financial perspective, but also, more importantly, it's disruptive to the business. I hope the many startups that are going through their own growing pains can learn some valuable lessons moving forward.

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