I’ve long ago stopped telling people I work in the PR industry. One reason is it can be a tough thing to explain PR to people outside the communication field – particularly if the discussion starts with a sarcastic question about being a “publicist” – but my primary rationale is I don’t want to be associated with an industry that often requires its own image overhaul (irony duly noted.) The latest black eye comes from Burson Marsteller – who was caught in a so-called whisper campaign trying to pitch privacy fears about Google. According to news reports, senior Burson staff approached tech reporters and bloggers to seed unfounded allegations about privacy gaps in Google’s Social Service application. A blogger broke the story by posting the email exchanges.

After predictable (though belated) mea culpa, both Facebook and Burson came under heavy criticism – though the latter was a favorite target on social platforms for initially censoring its Facebook page. Strangely enough, both Facebook and Burson argued in their defence they were merely helping to publicize “publicly available” information – which raises the question why they would have to brief reporters in the first place. Burson eventually admitted it erred in taking on the project, and said the campaign went against its standard operating procedures. Apparently, the agency has decided not to fire the two consultants at the center of the storm, though they will go through training on ethics.

The bigger culprit here, in my mind, is Burson…and any other PR firm that takes on a project with a dubious purpose that contravenes basic rules of transparency and probity. Too often, agencies take on lucrative clients for projects that should send alarms to any self-respecting communication professional. If there is a litmus test, it’s not easily apparent. Every PR agency – and communication professional – needs to confirm the ethical guidelines and values that will determine what projects it takes on, and how the PR programs are implemented. There are companies I won’t take on as clients, and there are definitely some things I won’t do or say under the guise of public relations.

Whether this latest Burson smear campaign was done by rogues or hints at a larger systemic rot, I can’t say. But it only the latest in a long list of industry scandals that erodes the credibility of every communication professional. It may be a coincidence, but the IABC’s latest edition of Communication World focuses on the topic of ethics in the PR industry. Is anybody listening?

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