Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why the Burson-Marsteller/Facebook blow-up won't change anything

You've probably read about Facebook's botched attempt to smear Google by planting stories about alleged privacy threats in a little-used Google service called Social Circle. Facebook hired public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to plant the stories, and the PR firm assigned two recently-hired former journalists, Jim Goldman and John Mercurio, to execute the plan.

The two reporters-turned-flacks had no success in getting the story picked up by conventional media outlets--in fact, Goldman's pitch to USA Today turned into a story not about Google but about Burson-Marsteller's fevered attempt to convince the magazine to write negatively about Google. When USA Today independently investigated Burson-Marsteller's claims, it found them to be "largely untrue", at which point Goldman stopped talking to the newspaper. As an alternative, Burson-Marsteller turned to bloggers. Mercurio pitched the story to blogger and security expert Chris Soghoian, going so far as to offer to assist in the writing of the blog post, which Mercurio would then pitch to a variety of sites, including the Huffington Post. Soghoian asked Mercurio who his client was, Mercurio refused to answer, and Soghoian published his email correspondence with Mercurio on the web.

Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast picked up on the story, and got Facebook to confirm that it was the client behind Burson-Marsteller's efforts. Once Lyons' story hit the web, interest in what had happened exploded. Burson-Marsteller announced that, in essence, the problem was all due to Facebook, and it would no longer work for the firm. Facebook announced that it hadn't instructed Burson-Marsteller to plant the Google story in the way the PR firm attempted, but that it (Facebook) was justified in its actions, in large part because Google was mining Facebook's own data in order to offer Social Circle.

Industry observers were expecting both Burson-Marsteller and Facebook to fire some of their employees as a result of the fiasco, but it hasn't happened so far. In fact, Burson-Marsteller has announced that it won't fire anyone, but will give the involved employees "additional ethics training." The question is, why not fire them? The probable reason is that any employee who Burson-Marsteller fired would file suit against the company for wrongful termination. The discovery process for the suit would in turn reveal that Burson-Marsteller management approved the plan, and possibly even conceived of it in the first place. It would further reveal that Burson-Marsteller runs these kinds of campaigns for its clients on a regular basis, and that the problem with this particular campaign wasn't that it violated the company's ethical standards as actually practiced, but that the company and its client got caught.

But what about the ex-journalists who executed the scheme, Jim Goldman and John Mercurio? They were almost certainly hired specifically for their journalism experience and connections. Goldman was most recently CNBC's Silicon Valley reporter, and worked for a number of publications and networks over the years, including the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley's hometown newspaper. Mercurio was most recently the Executive Editor of the National Journal's Hotline, and prior to that was Political Editor for CNN; Burson-Marsteller itself claims that Mercurio has more than 20 years of journalism experience.

Shouldn't Goldman's and Mercurio's decades of journalistic experience have led them to conclude that the campaign they were executing on behalf of Facebook was unethical? And if it didn't, will a few hours of ethics training make either man any more ethical? (Update, May 18, 2011: According to Burson-Marsteller's own website, Jim Goldman got a B.A. degree from Brown University in Ethics in Political Journalism and Political Philosophy. I guess the saying that "most people don't retain much of what they learned in college" must be true, at least in Goldman's case.)

My belief is that neither man objected because Burson-Marsteller's tactics are, in fact, common practice. They no doubt were on the receiving end of such campaigns, and quite possibly actively participated in them as journalists. They saw no ethical conflict because that's how things are actually done.

The reputation of the journalism profession in the U.S. has fallen to the level of used car salespeople. If you want to know why, you need to go no further than to consider how many other reporters and editors with Goldman's and Mercurio's ethical standards, or lack thereof, are writing the news that you're reading, listening to and watching. If those two men are in any way representative of the journalists employed by this country's media outlets, the journalistic profession deserves its reputation.

As for Facebook, no one should be surprised that it would be behind a smear campaign, and that it would react with righteous indignation when asked to apologize for its conduct. Anyone who has followed Facebook knows that the company has a habit of regularly changing its privacy controls and rules to make it harder for users to control how much of their information is made public, and of positioning users' losses of privacy as "improvements" until third parties reveal the truth. To say that Facebook is "ethically challenged" would be an understatement.

Given all that, I have no expectation that this fiasco, compared by Dan Lyons to a Keystone Kops episode, will result in any meaningful changes at either Burson-Marsteller or Facebook, other than that both companies will work harder not to get caught in the future.

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