We’ve all read the "Facebookgate" story by now: Facebook hired mega-public relations firm Burson-Marstellar to launch a negative campaign against Google over privacy issues.
Burson is now trying to distance itself from the campaign and the client.
Burson’s statement after the story broke stresses this point:
The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.
Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.
Burson’s defense is pure nonsense. These people are the PR professionals. It is ridiculous to try to blame the client for leading you astray.
[Full disclosure: I have worked with people from Burson throughout my career and have great respect for the firm. Burson, obviously, did not approach me to write this.]
My company does public relations work for clients, including a number of tech firms. At various points in time, our clients have approached us with ideas, many good but some very bad. It is our job to guide clients and help them see what is the best approach.
But it is easy to see why and how Burson screwed up. A big, marquee client like Facebook walks in the door and you want to make them happy. They present you with an idea that is a ticking time bomb. However, you want the work, so you lose all sense of professional judgment and become the proverbial “yes man.” You get the business, but you hurt your client.
Here is what Burson should have said when Facebook walked in the door:
1. “As much as we want you as a client, we have to tell you that this idea has a 95 percent chance of blowing up in your face. For your own good we won’t and can’t do it this way.”
2. “Given all the heat you have taken about privacy, there is nothing wrong about you raising legitimate privacy and security concerns about your competitors and rivals. We can help you raise these concerns effectively, appropriately, and openly.”
3. “While this may make you feel better, and might even take some small measure of focus off you, it isn’t going to fix the challenges you face. Given your size, and given the enormous amounts of personal information you hold, there will still be serious concerns about your privacy and security policies and safeguards -- even if Google also comes more under the spotlight.”
4. “The most important thing you can do is to continue to take whatever steps you can to assuage these concerns -- and do a better job of explaining what you are doing. The key here is for Facebook to become more proactive in its approach -- rightly or wrongly, you appear far too reactive by responding to privacy and security issues after the fact. You need to leapfrog the dialogue and get out in front of this issue. Do something bold, earn some style points.”
5. “You are viewed in the totality of your business practices. And, you have taken a lot of heat, from the movie portrayal of the early days to the discussions around China and censorship. You have taken a number of actions that send a good message -- the $100 million to the Newark schools was extremely generous. However, these actions don’t have a tight fit to what you do. You need to be equally engaged and socially active closer to home. Look at how much mileage Google has gotten by being ‘Googley.’ We can help Facebook craft a more proactive, progressive business story based on what you are already doing and what we can help you do in the future.
We can, in essence, change the image of the Website that is all about personal image.”
That would be a real public relations strategy to be proud of, one you wouldn’t mind seeing in the news.
— Robert Housman has more than two decades of experience in public policy and public affairs. He is a partner at Book Hill Partners.