My Burson-Marsteller Experience, Long Before “Googlegate”

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka the PRDude

Most professions have some kind of licensing system, an accepted credential or prescribed checks and balances in place for fairly obvious reasons:  Being a “professional” in a particular discipline means you have the knowledge, skills, abilities and experience to do the job right.

This holds true for the medical professional who treats your skin rash, the auto mechanic professional who fixes your transmission, the culinary professional who prepares your $40 entree.

Same goes for the public relations professional who develops and executes communications programs that are based on research and driven by proven strategies to deliver measurable results.  Those who bill themselves as “public relations professionals” are expected to be experts in the practice of public relations.  There’s no licensing or prerequisites of any kind.

Last week, one of the world’s foremost public relations agencies — Burson-Marsteller — was charged with violating a few of the guiding, defining principles of public relations.   By now you’ve probably read the story: B-M was contracted by the folks at Facebook to take on one of its rivals for global online domination — Google — through a so-called “smear” campaign concerning user privacy issues.

In short: The agency reportedly pitched negative and erroneous stories about Google to big shot bloggers and traditional media, and they even offered to draft copy!  The effort is totally contrary to what many of us in public relations identify as being “professional” because the B-M team did not disclose the name of their client and true public relations is not structured around lies.

There are broad lapses, no, avoidance of ethical standards here.  And, the plot just thickened with news that B-M censored comments on the so-called “Googlegate” by removing negative posts on its Facebook page.

Disclaimer time: I hold the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR), am a member of the Universal Accreditation Board (the body that grants and administers the APR) and a member of the Public Relations Society of America.  I am aware of and steadfastly follow accepted ethical guidelines I learned through the APR program and are required by PRSA.

The Accreditation in Public Relations

B-M’s actions last week are a violent kick-in-the-shins to the public relations profession and the industry.  I’d ask, “What were they thinking?” but really don’t want to know the answer.

Now, to my B-M experience.

In the early 1980s, I lost my position in the public relations department at a local community college.  It was my first job in the industry, as I came out of journalism.  I answered a help wanted notice for an account position with the Chicago office of Burson-Marsteller, and was invited to interview; my mentor told me B-M was a top-notch national firm and to go out and sell myself.

This was truly a great opportunity, and I prepared my portfolio, dressed in my best dark suit and confidently dove head-first into the process.  First, I met with a nice man who was a vice president.  We met over lunch, where I did my best to point out my background at the legendary City News Bureau of Chicago and avoid doing something clumsy with a fork.

A few days later, I was invited to meet with other members of the account team.  Lots of other members of the account team.   Six, in fact.  All on one day.

I dutifully went from office to office, recounting my experience, asking relevant questions and responding to questions posed.  None of the interviews were confrontational, I recall.  I felt good, but tired and ready to go home.  But, there was one more person to speak to:  Another vice president, an attractive blond woman with impeccable grooming and a warm personality.

The lady executive and I exchanged questions and answers, and all was going well until she asked this:  “So how are you spending your day?”  “Well, I’m taking on some freelance writing assignments, and of course, I’m actively pursuing another full-time position. And, one more thing: I’ve been playing lots of guitar and trying to figure out Jimi Hendrix licks!  Just can’t grasp how he’s getting that tone,” I said.

She muttered something about “it must have been the drugs,” and I immediately ascertained that I perhaps should have withheld that last comment. Hey, I was being honest.  And, I was tired.  We concluded the interview.

A few days later, I called and learned that the position was offered to someone else.  B-M probably made the right decision by taking a pass on me. I had no agency experience and probably was too cavalier for big-time corporate PR back then. To me, “public relations” was writing news releases and pitching stories.  But, I did have a firm grasp of the truth and ethical behavior in communications.

The account managers who were behind “Googlegate” also were originally from the news industry:  An anchor from CNBC and one-time  political columnist.  Perhaps they didn’t know they were violating the rules, but I don’t think so.

One more thing: I still haven’t mastered Jimi Hendrix’s passionate playing, but really neither have too many other guitarists.  But I have both hands around the ethical practice of public relations.

Three Thoughts Generated from the bin Laden “Operation”

By Edward M. Bury, APR, aka The PRDude

As I put these thoughts down, I struggled the past few minutes with the last word of the name for this post.   How does one describe what took place in Pakistan in the wee hours of  Sunday morning?

From a purely factual perspective: A terrorist monster who masterminded the slaughter of some 3,000 Americans and strained our collective emotional fiber to its core was killed in a military exercise approved by the President and carried out by U.S. commandos on foreign soil.

That’s the reason I put the word “operation” in quotes.  It was a concerted, planned military operation that took down Osama bin Laden.

Here are three thoughts, three take aways on the fourth day since the operation.

1. More Jaundiced Perceptions of Public Relations. According to our government, bin Laden was hiding in the compound in Abbottabad for around five years — figuratively under the noses of Pakistani government and military leaders at the nearby military academy.  Now, the leaders of Pakistan have to defend the nation (and themselves) against charges of collusion or incompetence.  I’ve read news commentary claiming the U.S. and Pakistan are engaged in some kind of “PR war.”

Bunk.  Public relations, as I and many others maintain, does not fall anywhere in this scenario.  What’s going on is “diplomatic relations,” pure and simple. Let’s hope and pray the surely strained relations we have with Pakistan do not lead to real war.

2. The Good and Bad of Social Media.  In the good old days — you know, five years ago, before Twitter and Facebook — the only way to get real time reports on the bin Laden operation were from two of the original sources of mass media for the masses — television and radio.  Today, everyone with a handheld, desktop or laptop and an online connection not only got the message, they were able to resend the message to friends and followers.

What’s more, they were able to offer their own perspective, add their own insight.  This is allows the conspiracy theorists, quacks and nutballs a forum to spread conjecture, lies and nonsense.  Thank the gods of technology for the delete key and ability to block inbound messages.

3.  Every News Story is Part of the Cycle.  Rest assured, we’ll be reading about, listening, tweeting, posting, talking and debating the bin Laden operation story for months to come — especially on every September 11.  And, if — and I pray this never happens — there’s another terrorist attack in the U.S. or in one of the nations that still consider us allies.

But over time, the fatal shooting of Osama bin Laden and some underlings in a place far from here will fade from the headlines, television reports and blogs.  Let’s hope the terrorist organization he masterfully created fades away, too.