On the Burson Marsteller and Facebook Debacle

Claire Thompson, Freelance PR Consultant, Waves PR

I can see it now: the conversation between client and PR consultancy. Facebook has been getting a good public kicking over privacy. And others are getting away with it. And they want some help turning the tide of public opinion. (From the queues at its stand at Internet World, it’s not affecting even savvy users’ clamour to know more about this Internet success.)

So the first, and most simple. rule of good PR is: if you don’t like what people are saying, put your house in order. And in fairness, Facebook has been trying to do just that. It’s just not getting heard terribly well. (Possibly because as a company it doesn’t seem terribly ‘social’, at least with my UK eyes? Whilst Google’s teams are out and advocating, getting hold of someone to speak on Facebook is a lot harder and a lot less friendly. I digress.)

Now Facebook is a GIFT of a client. It’s a name everyone’s heard of. It’s even had a film made about it. As a PR person, people *want* to talk to you rather than get you off the phone. Having put your remedy package together, it’s easy enough to brief the changes out. Imagine the headlines if Faceboook said sorry, for example! Overnight heroes.

But Burson Marsteller is used to dealing with difficult clients. It’s been at the heart of several scandals and has people watching its activities very closely, notably after the ‘greenwash’ debacle. So whilst you’d have thought they’d be quite circumspect about a brief to highlight a competitors security issues.

FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) can be an exciting PR campaign. Suddenly you’re given carte blanche to release your inner Dick Dastardly. Sometimes it can be very funny. At Bite, years ago, we gave out earplugs when Microsoft launched its new Windows operating system with massive PR and advertising backing. The difference between that and this is that it was a little light hearted fun, done very openly. Mostly FUD is dangerous ground, best avoided. Publicly sharing competitors’ dirt opens you up to coming under the same spotlight. And once the gloves are off, salacious corporate gossip is so much more fun for the media (social and traditional)  than version 2.2.7 has just been released!

Of course if you’re asked a direct question, careful comment is absolutely expected, but proactively going out and slating another company? That’s just paying for PR for them! I am very surprised that Burson Marsteller wasn’t offering better counsel, particularly with it’s past experiences.

This is the company’s statement:

The following statement was released by Burson-Marsteller on May 12, 2011.

“Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.

The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.  Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.

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 that principle.”

Mmmm. So it’s Facebook’s fault then that BMs staff were briefing against Google? C’mon BM. If I was a client I’d be thinking: are they going to turn on us, too, when their PR tactics turn sour? If they told you to jump in a fire, would you?

From Burson Marsteller’s perspective, they need to clean up their own reputation – and fast. If I was Ikea or WWF I would now be questioning my association with them. If I was Google, I might be tempted to take them out of my search engine rankings. There’s been an admission, but no apology – to Facebook or to Google. You have a blog: use it! You have a Twitter account – it can be used for more than issuing statements.  If you really want to persuade the world that you are good at crisis communications, this is a fantastic opportunity to show the world just what you can do.

From Facebook’s perspective, proactively coming out and briefing the media on planned changes,  making senior executives available and saying sorry for the fact that some people felt aggrieved by perceived past security failings, addressing the issue and opening up in the process would have had Facebook on the front pages for an entirely different reason. And although it would be hard, it won’t be impossible still to take a more positive PR stance. Only now you’ll have to be prepared to talk about your PR company as well.

Of course, it’s possible that this was always part of the plan. In the same way as no-one had ever heard of Trafigura or Carter Ruck before the Trafigura  superinjunction debacle, if I was wanting to dump toxic waste somewhere, cheaply, I’d now know who’d be prepared to do it for me.

(Apologies for the lack of social share facility on the website at present – this small technical hitch is being resolved)

Claire Thompson is a freelance PR consultant, working as Waves PR. She is also a co-founder of SEO PR Training and organises the thupr PR events.





  • By TedEd, May 13, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    Good insights. Can you imagine the eruption between the client and agency on how to handle the blame (or assign it to each other) on this one? Facebook does have the capability (and capitalization) to get its house in order — and it’s time for them to act quickly. It’s PR blunders are becoming infamous, and there will be consequences as the masses of users begin to experience the adverse effects of lax and less than transparent privacy. It’s coming.

  • By claireatwaves, May 14, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    The interesting addition to the mix was that Facebook’s normal PR agency knew nothing about this.

    I don’t know that the average user cares too much, but had they spent the money informing customers rather than paying for negative fees, they might have bought some loyalty!

Other Links to this Post

  1. ClaireatWaves (Claire Thompson) — May 13, 2011 @ 8:06 am

  2. THUPR (Alex & Claire) — May 13, 2011 @ 8:09 am

  3. ClaireatWaves (Claire Thompson) — May 13, 2011 @ 8:10 am

  4. jonobean (Jonathan Bean) — May 13, 2011 @ 8:19 am

  5. Where does the line fall for PR people? | Waves PR, freelance PR consultant, UK — December 8, 2011 @ 10:07 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Site Map Freelance PR consultancy in the UK by © WavesPR 2010

%d bloggers like this: