Social Media as PR Ethics Reform
Something struck me in Jim’s post yesterday about Burson-Marsteller’s embarrassing attempt to launch a whisper campaign against Google over privacy concerns: this black hat PR effort was tripped up by new media. With so many in the news business — and PR, too — openly nostalgic for the old days of supposedly higher minded journalism, it fascinates me that two old journos got caught with their pants down by an ethical blogger. Maybe the good old days weren’t so good after all.
To recap (briefly), Jim Goldman and John Mercurio, recent journalist-to-PR converts, attempted to plant a bogus story on Google’s Social Circle, alleging serious privacy violations, just in time for Congressional hearings on the subject. Mercurio took his pitch to a former FTC blogger, offering to ghost and place a negative op-ed. Shortly thereafter, Goldman approached USA Today.
But in the thin space between those pitches, the blogger, Christopher Soghoian, made Mercurio’s pitch public, and the allegations against Google proved to be, as USA Today put it, “largely untrue.” Suddenly, the story wasn’t “Google, the All-Seeing Evil Eye,” but “Smear Campaign Against Google Outed.” As they say on Twitter, #PRfail.
Traditional public relations types still harbor a lot of suspicion in regards to new media — and, in light of this, maybe they should, at least if so-called “whisper campaigns” are still in their tactics toolbox.
Bloggers, tweeters, and the various types of online influencers do have a direct line to the public that can be nerve-wracking, but the lesson from Burson-Marsteller is to deal with that by raising the PR ethics bar. That scrappy blogger isn’t just a kid who’ll fawn all over a hot pitch; he’s also a writer riding on his reputation, who may have less incentive than more established media to let a clumsy — or downright dishonest — pitch slide. Outing a shady play might, in fact, be his ticket to the big leagues.
And so I’d bet that one reaction circulating this week in establishment PR circles is an even deeper suspicion of the world of “online influencers,” coupled with increased chatter about how to run the play differently next time. And that’s just a tremendous mistake. The answer is clearly to drop the spin and run with the facts — so you don’t create a crisis with your PR. (NOTE: Facebook, now outed as the “unnamed client” backing the attack on Google, has simply got to get some PR training from professionals who won’t “[bluster] around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops.”)
Playing fast and loose with the truth may not deprive you of an “Agency of the Year” title (which Burson won on Tuesday), but credibility is worth a lot more than a trophy.
Kate Schackai is the Vice President of Crawford PR and co-host of #askthePRpro. She blogs for Crawford on general PR issues, social media value, and professionalism in the age of Twitter.