A million years ago, while attending junior high (that’s like middle school, if you were born in the ‘80s), if students saw two people whispering to one another, someone would start yelling “Secrets are lies!” Recently, Burson-Marsteller (“part of Young & Rubicam Brands”) found out the hard way that keeping secrets isn’t good public relations practice. Essentially the case boiled down to a couple of media relations hacks who started pitching negative stories about Google to select media, but without being willing to reveal the identity of their client. In fact, keeping a “secret” client represented the lesser of the ethical evils displayed in this case, since the material being promoted to the media turned out to be patently false (lies – but not secrets). To learn more about potential ethical pitfalls in the practice of public relations, read the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics.
Even though B-M stands among the largest PR firms in the world, it may not come as a surprise that the firm isn’t listed by PR industry pundits at O’Dwyer’s in the top 150 PR Firms in the U.S., because being listed requires disclosure of information to verify billings, etc.
But before you come to the conclusion that B-M should be considered a den of unethical practice, let me suggest that the firm may simply suffer from a couple of perennial management problems that ended up manifesting in unethical behavior. First, let us assume that the organization’s leadership believes in its own vision, mission and ethical standards. This set of standards was clearly not sufficiently communicated to the personnel involved in this incident.
Second, consider the personnel – a former CNBC anchor and former political columnist. These individuals likely spent years fielding calls and emails from “PR people” who behaved in marginally ethical ways. One wonders if there was ever any specific training for these journalism types on the ethics of public relations practice. Training, or retraining in this case, would also be a management responsibility – a responsibility that assuredly fell to the wayside in this instance.
To return to the secrecy bit, of course some information should remain private (such as choosing not to reveal your revenue numbers to O’Dwyer’s, unless you are a publicly traded firm and the SEC requires it), but the name of the organization you serve as a communication practitioner must never be a secret. And lies… well, even small ones can come back and give you a sturdy bite in the behind. I’ll stick with the truth.