Integrity is Imperative, Not Optional

Facebook is red-faced about its failed attempt to use a PR firm to plant stories critical of Google's privacy policies. It should be. The PR firm that took the work from Facebook should be more than embarrassed.

While most finger-pointing is directed at Facebook for violating its own rules of transparency, a lot of blame should be heaped on Burson-Marsteller for agreeing to slink around on Facebook's behalf.

Burson-Marsteller is an excellent PR agency, but apparently the account manager who accepted this assignment forgot the Public Relations Society of America credo that says, "I pledge to conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public."

Facebook said it hired Burson-Marsteller to "focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst." A spokesman for Burson-Marsteller said it approached Christopher Soghoian, an Indiana University graduate student who blogs about online privacy and security issues, asking him to write about how Google's Social Circle collects and uses data about its users.

"The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day – without their permission," one of the Burson-Marsteller emails said.

Burson-Marsteller didn't disclose the name of its client and Soghoian declined the suggestion. Instead, he blew the whistle, which led Facebook to admit it should have been upfront about what it was doing, as it requires of users on its own social media site.

However, the situation never should have gotten that far. Burson-Marsteller knows the rules and should have pushed back on Facebook, even if it meant not getting the gig. Better to be right than on the wrong side of a publicity backfire.

Facebook faces its own critics on privacy. Burson-Marsteller would have served as better strategic counselors by advising Facebook to deal with its own privacy issues, so it could talk about its improvements, not Google's alleged shortcomings.

In a statement, Burson-Marsteller admitted it erred by accepting the work. "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 this principle."

Our colleague, Jim Hoggan of Hoggan & Associates in Vancouver, B.C., is writing a new book tentatively titled "Duped" that explores how the PR industry has gotten off track, contributing to deeper public skepticism. Hoggan, whose first book is titled, "Do the Right Thing," believes PR professionals need to rediscover their compass and perform the service our profession was created to deliver – giving sound advice to sustain and build reputations over the long term.

Great effort goes into PR campaigns to engage customers, stakeholders and employees. But genuine engagement is undermined when PR professionals aid and abet their clients in dissembling, deflecting criticism and dissing critics or competitors.

As Hoggan says, doing the right thing isn't always easy, but in the long run clients and the public are better served.

[Hoggan & Associates is a member of Pinnacle Worldwide, a network of independently owned and operated public relations agencies in key markets around the world. CFM Strategic Communications President Gary Conkling is president-elect of Pinnacle Worldwide.]