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.
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.