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B-M Pitch on Behalf of Unnamed Client Raises Ethical Questions

USA Today reported this morning on a “whisper campaign” launched by Burson-Marsteller on behalf of an unnamed client that targeted Google’s Social Circle feature for Gmail. (The USA Today article and this one from Business Insider has a bit of detail about the feature, which taps into your info to make “social connections.”)

Citing consumer privacy concerns and Google’s issues with the Federal Trade Commission, two of Burson’s high-profile publicists — former CNBC anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio — sent a pitch to reporters suggesting an op-ed slamming Google. One of those pitched reporters, Christopher Soghoian, a former FTC researcher and blogger, posted the pitch online. And, actually, according to the email, Mercurio said, “I’m happy to help place the op-ed and assist in the drafting, if needed. For media targets, I was thinking about the Washington Post, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call or the Huffington Post.”

USA Today says Goldman was in contact with them about the story. And the paper writes, “After Goldman’s pitch proved largely untrue, he subsequently declined USA TODAY’s requests for comment.”

We were in touch with the firm to find out if this is standard practice and how the firm will address the obvious ethical issues this situation raises. We received this statement from the firm: “The situation that led to the USA Today story is highly unusual and does not represent standard practice at Burson-Marsteller. We regret that it was not handled well and we are reviewing it thoroughly.”

Recently, we reported on a story published by ProPublica and CJR that expressed a fear about the growing influence that PR has on the news. In response, Keith Trivitt, associate director of PR for the Public Relations Society of America, posted a comment that emphasized the organization’s code of ethics and that publicists across the industry largely adhere to it. We asked Trivitt about this situation, and he said the lack of transparency over who Burson’s client is is the big issue here.

“Not disclosing the client, that sets them up for questioning down the line,” he told us. “That’s just being transparent from a communications perspective and a business management perspective.”

By not disclosing the client, the story ended up being about the firm, Trivitt said, rather than about their client. “That’s not the intent of any firm,” he added, saying the journalists are “rightly asking questions about why [is B-M] doing this and who is the client.”

Trivitt also sent us a line from the PRSA’s Code of Ethics that states that PR pros should:

“Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” (i.e. a client whom the firm is operating on behalf for a specific campaign) and that they should “avoid deceptive practices.”

However, Trivitt said, revisions in 2000 eliminated enforcement from the organization; rather these are “advisements of best practices and ethical standards.”

So that means it’s up to B-M, which the USA Today article noted is one of the top international PR firms out there, to enforce the “best practices and ethical standards” of both the industry and the firm.

What is your response to this situation? The comments are open.

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