The Burson-Marsteller Mess: What Happens When the PR Firm Becomes The Story?


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Memo to Burson-Marsteller:

All press coverage is not good press coverage, even when you are a PR agency.

According to a story in the May 10th Money section of USA Today titled “PR Firms’s Google Attack” Burson-Marsteller, a top-five PR firm, started a “whisper campaign” aimed at getting newspapers (including USA Today) to run stories about how an obscure Gmail feature, Social Circle, infringes on peoples’ privacy and violates FTC rules. But Google said that Social Circle lets customers make social connections using public and private connections across Google products without skirting privacy.

The campaign was spearheaded by Burson-Marsteller’s Jim Goldman, a former CNBC tech correspondent, and former political columnist John Mercurio on behalf of an unnamed client. Goldman pitched the Social Circle issue as a huge privacy breach to Google users and an important story for consumers, said USA Today, and Mercurio even offered to ghostwrite an oped column on the topic for Christopher Soghoian, a former FTC researcher and blogger, and to help him get it published in major DC based news outlets. But Soghoian published Mercurio’s pitch (and his own subsequent rejection of it) on the web, foiling the publicists’ plan on behalf of an unnamed client.

This story is problematic on several levels. I’ve been working in the public relations field for 20 years, and I’ve never considered or recommended a “whisper campaign” for any client. In fact, ironically I had to google the definition which is ” a method of persuasion in which damaging rumors or innuendo are spread about the target, while the source of the rumors seeks to avoid being detected while spreading them.”

Where is Burson-Marsteller’s response to this mess? They’re in the PR business — surely they should know how to handle bad publicity. I just did a scan of their web site, blog, facebook page, and twitter sites and there is no response to the coverage they are receiving. No statement refuting the allegations. No explanations. Not one word. I’m shocked that one of the top PR firms in the world isn’t following the basic tenets of crisis management and strategic communications.

Next, I’ve always assumed that my pre-story pitching and correspondence with a reporter was essentially off-the-record. The idea that an email sent by the PR agency could become the news is troubling. Then again, didn’t our teachers tell us not to put anything in writing that we wouldn’t want read in front of the whole class?

Finally, news stories like this contribute to the stereotype that public relations professionals are sleazy and unethical. I don’t like it when Adweek’s Business Insider writes that “While sleazy PR firms trying to spread scandalous stories is old hat, what sets this incident apart is that it comes from high-end firm Burson-Marsteller. Really? I’d like to think that the majority of PR firms are NOT sleazy and unethical. I’d like to think that they act in their client’s best interest and that they behave ethically and responsibly. Is that naïve?

Jill Z. McBride
Jill founded JZMcBride & Associates in 1996 to provide marketing, public relations, social media and event planning services and consultation. More than a decade later, the firm serves an impressive roster of consumer, business-to-business and non-profit clients. Jill's contagious energy, personal involvement and extensive industry knowledge infuses every endeavor of the group in order to help her clients grow.


  1. You are fighting windmills. The fact is that PR firms which work for “big money” have to use unethical manipulation methods.

    Or how do you think Burson-Marsteller and others managed to change the public opinion on manmade global warming on behalf of fossil energy companies like Exxon Mobile?

    They launch false information, manipulate wikipedia, pay false studies with before defined results, they buy even greenpeace activists to carry out what those who pay them ask them to do.

    That’s why they are a “top-five PR firm”. PR is infowar and “all is fair in love and war.” 🙁


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