Tech PR: Psst, Tell Burson — Lying Damages Your Reputation
USA Today this week carried a remarkably kind article on one of those stories that, to many, makes the word “PR” synonymous with “lies.” It seems that Burson-Marsteller was caught red-handed pushing a whisper campaign to discredit Google. The culprits were a pair of Burson wheels who recently joined the agency from a profession ordinarily regarded for its members’ honesty, integrity and credibility — journalism. In the end, the only ones damaged by this illicit campaign were the perps themselves, and of course, good old Bursting Marshmallow.
The story: Burson spearheaded a campaign to spread rumors and innuendo that Social Circle, an obscure feature of GMail, secretly gathers user info and thus represents a violation of privacy and of Federal Trade Commission rules.
The source: an “anonymous” client.
The timing: Perfect — amid Congressional hearings on mobile location tracking features and other perceived threats to privacy.
The perps: former CNBC news anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio, newly hired by Burson.
What went wrong, Part 1: The story on Social Circle was completely made up and Mercurio pitched somebody who could figure that out quickly. He approached former FTC blogger Christopher Soghoian, offering to ghost and place a negative op ed on Social Circle. Soghoian outed Mercurio, posting the latter’s email pitch widely on the Internet.
What went wrong, Part 2: Goldman pitched the wrong newspaper, USA Today, at the wrong time — as colleague Mercurio’s fiasco with Soghoian went viral.
What went wrong, Part 3: USA Today outed Burson and Goldman in a major national story on the agency’s whisper campaign boondoggle.
Why I call this story “kind” — the very gentle way in which USA Today described the denouement:
After Goldman’s pitch proved largely untrue, he subsequently declined USA TODAY’s requests for comment.
In other words:
After the chief PR guys were caught lying.
After Burson’s whisper campaign was exposed as a hoax.
Curiously, Burson’s execrable conduct was a footnote in the USA Today story, which focused on Web and mobile privacy issues and the comparative harmlessness of Google’s Social Circle. Nobody spanked Goldman or Mercurio in that article. In a peculiar lapse, the reporters failed to even ask the identity of the mysterious “anonymous client” behind the whisper campaign. Burson and its client got off easy.
Not everybody was as nice as the folks at USA Today. In a story headlined, “BUSTED: Former CNBC Tech Reporter Jim Goldman Caught Spreading Lies,” Business Insider opens up slamming “the latest chapter in big PR sleaze.” We’ll likely see similar coverage pile up in the coming hours. Which made me wonder how the folks at Burson are handling this imbroglio.
I’m on Bursting’s home page now. The first thing I notice is a big banner proclaiming “Burson-Marstellar: Evidence-Based Communications.” Oops.
I don’t see any blog posts or media statements acknowledging and apologizing for the whisper campaign. Perhaps, like a lot of companies that get caught in a crisis, they’re hoping the whole thing will blow over — a curious response for a Top 10 PR firm that counsels others on how to handle crises.
Up top there’s a link to Burson’s “Global Crisis Contacts.” I’ll try to call one of them later and offer our crisis PR support. Maybe they need help.
To companies everywhere: Never take the foolish risk of running a “whisper campaign.” In the Internet era you will most certainly get caught. Over the next few days we’ll no doubt learn the identity of the anonymous client that hired Burson. The irony: They didn’t hurt Google — they helped Google.
Weird footnote: What if Google itself turns out to be mysterious source of the mysterious whisper campaign? You know, so they could look like a victim as they head into a tough Congressional hearing on Android’s heat-seeking human location capabilities? Naw, that just couldn’t be. That would be taking conspiracy theories to a truly ridiculous level. I guess. But just to be safe, “Psst — spread the word — when I said Burson’s story was a hoax, I was only kidding.”
Jim Crawford is the president and founder of Crawford PR. In Crawford blogs, he offers hard-earned perspective on public relations for the tech and broadband industries.