Four lessons from the Burson-Facebook fiasco

I’m ridiculously late to this, as usual, but people keep asking me about the Burson-Facebook thing because of my years at Burson, so I thought I’d post the gist of the response I’ve been giving. If you’re not familiar with the story of Burson’s ill-fated project stirring up FUD about Google on behalf of Facebook, you can read about it here.

But first, some housekeeping. I worked for Burson-Marsteller for six years, all here in China. It was a great experience. Much of what I know about PR and virtually all of what I know about doing PR in China I learned at Burson. I still use Burson-Marsteller China as an agency, and hold the people there in the highest regard. All agencies make mistakes. No one in PR wants to damage the reputation of a client, or their own agency. When it happens, we try to learn from it.

I don’t know what the chain of events involved in the Burson-Facebook project was, and I don’t know any of the people involved. I have no inside track. But as an industry observer, and in the spirit of learning from the situation, here are four lessons to take from this episode:

If it will embarrass you to have a pitch go public, it’s a bad pitch

The art of selling stories or viewpoints to journalists, bloggers or the public is a pitch. In writing or verbally, a pitch should stand alone as something you’d be comfortable going public on its own. If a pitch doesn’t pass that test, and its public release would embarrass you, your agency or your client, it’s a bad pitch. Any pitch that doesn’t identify the interest behind it is by definition a bad pitch, because lack of disclosure in a pitch suggests that someone would be embarrassed to be connected with it.  Rethink the strategy. Yes, this tars a whole branch of political PR based on anonymous leaks. So be it.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a rival…transparently

It’s silly to pretend that slamming competitors isn’t part of PR. In the industry it’s called “depositioning”, a sanitized word that suggests some lingering discomfort. Outside it might be called smearing or, for those in the tech industry, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). So what’s the difference between a smear and a legit piece of competitive PR? Transparency, for one thing. There is nothing wrong with criticizing a rival (or a client’s rival) or pointing journalists at their shortcomings. But you’d better be prepared to stand behind your claims, and that means being well researched and transparent.

PR instincts and journalism instincts are not the same

PR agencies hire a lot of ex-journalists for their story instincts and their usefulness in media relations due to their contacts and credibility with other journalists (more on this below). But the fit isn’t always natural. Someone senior from a global agency other than Burson told me recently that they have about a ten percent long-term stick-rate from their senior journalist hires in the US. I’m not surprised.

One problem is that although they overlap, journalist instincts and PR instincts are not the same. Oversimplified, journalistic instincts emphasize spotting and piecing together stories while PR instincts often emphasize identifying and managing risks. We spend as many years and as much work developing our instincts as journalists spend developing theirs. Any crossover in either direction means a learning curve. The risk that should have been spotted in this particular case was that the backstory of the pitch –an anonymous client paying a major PR firm to slam Google on privacy– was more interesting than the pitch itself.

Set a thief to catch a thief

Despite the blurring of the line between mainstream media and blogging, journalists and bloggers are different. If you send a bad pitch to a mainstream journalist, generally it just dies (perhaps along with some of your credibility). If you send a bad pitch to a blogger, there’s every chance it’s going to published and ridiculed. Welcome to blogging. This isn’t 2003, and everyone should be up on this. I understand hiring mainstream journalists to pitch other mainstream journalists, but it seems to me that the PR industry has been slow to embrace using bloggers the same way. As a blogging PR person I don’t think bloggers are particularly more resistant to working in PR, but I definitely think they respond to PR differently than mainstream journalists. And that’s definitely true for tech bloggers.

Thoughts? Feel free to argue with me.

See also:

Lou Hoffman’s “Ishmael’s Corner”: More to the Facebook PR campaign against Google story

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3 Responses to Four lessons from the Burson-Facebook fiasco

  1. Sachin Talwar says:

    As a former Burson-Marsteller JV employee, I feel for B-M simply because they are the yardstick for crisis thanks to the Tylenol case. And they have many brilliant people. So I retain a healthy respect and regard for the B-M brand. As you said, mistakes happen. I completely agree with what you have so succinctly captured. The fundamental issue was transparency. And to your four lessons, I would add that any consulting firm (not just PR) must know when to say no to a client. This is something many find difficult to do and because so much is at risk and because often they get away with it, it perpetuates. But the leaders and the leadership in those firms must be absolutely clear about not succumbing to client pressure if the approach is not correct. And they must have the necessary guidelines in-built to the culture and DNA of the firm. This pressure is not unique only to external consultants but also to internal practitioners.

  2. Lou Hoffman says:

    Will,

    Enjoyed your post.

    I agree with you that many underestimate the transition from journalism to PR.

    But I don’t see this as core to the issue.

    Jim Goldman, the CNBC personality who joined Burson, had less than a year of PR experience under his belt when the Facebook assignment came his way (don’t know Mercurio so can’t comment on him).

    Think of this from Goldman’s perspective.

    He’s fairly new to the company.

    He’s fairly new to PR.

    His boss comes to him and gives him marching orders on the Facebook assignment.

    Knowing Goldman (we’ve worked with him for many years going back to his local network affiliate days), his instincts told him this was a bad idea but he didn’t have the seat time to question his boss.

    The fault lies with the person who accepted the FB assignment who I assume has plenty of PR experience.

  3. Will says:

    Thanks, Lou. To your last point, something I didn’t remark on in this post was my disappointment with Burson’s public statement about this case. Not only should they not have taken the assignment, as they admitted, they should have counseled Facebook on the risks inherent in the approach. Perhaps they did–who knows how this unfolded?–but if so, clearly not vociferously enough.