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Burson-Marsteller, and PR’s PR Problem

Last week, you couldn’t point your Web browser anywhere without hearing about the Burson-Marsteller Facebook-Google smear campaign debacle. Today, just one week from the initial reporting of it, the story seems to have all but disappeared.

Interestingly, what I did find yesterday was this op-ed at Forbes.com: “In Defense of Burson-Marsteller, Sort Of.” It’s written by Aaron Perlut, who runs a small PR agency himself, and in reading it I find myself…well frankly I find myself a little annoyed.

To be clear, Aaron does not support the actions by BM, and neither do I. So it’s not that his direct defense of BM has me annoyed, but rather it’s how right he is in pointing out why BM’s poor choice is just a drop in the bucket for a much larger problem.

The overarching tone of his article basically says “well, duh.” And the thing is, the more stories I find about the scandal, the more sentiment like that I seem to find.

General views like this that seem to be common in many stories, as well as the fact that the story itself seems to have flared and died so quickly, seem to indicate that no one but PR industry professionals were shocked that a PR agency would act this way. “Yes. We know it happened. We’re really not surprised. That’s what PR is. Moving on.”

In Aaron’s article, though, he also makes this astute observation: “The Internet and free flow of information has established new levels of transparency as one of the core pillars of PR. And in a pill, if you are not transparent, you will more than likely be outed. The braintrust behind this campaign — whether it was Mercurio and Goldman at Burson, their superiors, Facebook or whomever — clearly didn’t understand this.”

I couldn’t agree more. And I hope that many more read that statement, and read it knowing that nearly all PR pros do understand this. And they live and work by the tenets of transparency and enabling the flow of accurate information.

Annoyingly, though, PR seems to still be very much defined for most people outside the industry by incidents like BM’s.

For me then, what the whole debacle highlights is PR’s PR problem. The industry needs a better image. So how do we do it? I’m open to suggestions, and I promise,  I’ll give credit where it’s due.

What do you think? Was BM’s poor choice an unfortunate exception? Or do you think the PR industry needs some PR of its own?

This post was first published by Nate Hubbell on March Communications’ blog, PR Nonsense, and may be viewed here.

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