What on earth has happened to Burson-Marsteller?
Talking about other PR firms is generally something I prefer to avoid. But today I’m making an exception.
In my own CV, the time I spent as Chairman and Chief Executive of B-M in the UK is something I look back on with mixed feelings. I like to think that at Chelgate we do a number of things differently and, I hope, rather better. But I have always regarded that firm as an important, serious minded and professional business . I think too that it deserves great credit for its pioneering work, pushing back the boundaries of our profession and helping to position public relations as a priority at the highest levels of management strategy. And, like many others, I have also always regarded Harold Burson as an outstanding leader of the profession - a man of decency, high intelligence and rock solid ethics.
So it’s with sour distaste that I read the breaking news of B-M’s central role in the sleazy Facebook ”black PR” secrecy scandal. Quite simply, this is not the way that B-M would have operated in the days when I knew it well, and I am sure that it is not an approach which Harold Burson would have condoned.
But let’s be clear, I’m not condemning negative PR. I wouldn’t like to see it becoming a day-to-day part of our professional service, but there are times when it can have its place. The global campaign Chelgate ran against the Mugabe administration in Zimbabwe is something I look back on with pride, and I believe was fully, resoundingly justified.
But the “Save Zimbabwe” campaign was not conducted from the shadows. People knew who we were and what we were about. In fact, given the death threats I received on an almost weekly basis, we might have had more reason than many to keep our role obscure. But how can you accuse others of dishonesty and falsehood if you are not prepared to be open and truthful yourself?
And nor do I feel that refusal to disclose a client’s identity is, in itself, reprehensible. At Chelgate we have a number of clients whom we have never disclosed. These clients come to us in confidence. We work with them, we advise them, we develop strategies on their behalf, and all of this, I believe, is a matter between those clients and ourselves. We don’t reveal their identities, and we don’t disclose the nature of our work. But nor do we publicly represent them.
On the other hand, when we act for a client, when we argue their case to the media, or solicit the support of politicians; or when, for example, we engage with an NGO, a local council or an academic institution on their behalf, in fact, whenever we act as the go-between for our client with any third party, then of course we indicate who we are acting for. Any other approach would be furtive and creepy. And that’s not howe professional PR should be.
It has been suggested that at least some of the information that B-M was hawking to its contacts was not merely secretly sourced, but also actually false and misleading. I have no idea if this is true. For all I know, that’s negative PR from the other side. Once the paranoia box is open, its difficult to close it again. But that’s not really the point here. In this grubby little attempt to seed negative stories without disclosing their source, they were denying the media (and that means the public, and that means you and me) the opportunity to assess the value of those stories. If you don’t know the source, you can’t judge motive. In this case, source and motive were absolutely central to the story; so central, I would suggest, that the story itself becomes incomplete and misleading if that information is withheld.
Throughout its history, the PR profession has struggled with the damage caused by its grubbier practitioners - the PR hacks, the press agents, the fly-by-night corner shops who live by false promises, operating in the shadows, spinning half truths or downright falsehoods. But that struggle , generally, has been a successful one. And it is firms like Burson-Marsteller who deserve the credit for establishing the profession as an ethical, valuable and often admirable part of the management process. They have led by example. But if senior B-M professionals are now seen to be operating like shadowy, backstreet spin merchants, you have to wonder about the continuing value of that example.
I expect - I hope - that this will be seen to be an aberration; that the Burson-Marsteller management will both condemn this action by some of their staff, and apologise without reserve for what they have done. I expect too that they will explain clearly and publicly what they are doing to ensure that this kind of thing can never happen again. If they do not; if they are in any way half-hearted in their apology and their recognition of fault, then it’s a black day for the PR profession. Because Burson-Marsteller leads by example.