In the 80’s, 90’s and the earlier part of this century Burson-Marsteller had a stellar reputation. It was the gold standard, the McKinsey of PR. Burson execs were built of special stock, seemingly smarter, richer, working on cool, high-level stuff with big budgets. Burson was the perennial top-dog in billings, its prestige, even when attacked, unquestioned. If you had deep pockets and you wanted the best and the brightest, you hired Burson. What happened?
In the 9-30-07 Week in Review I commented on Burson’s flagrant Astroturfing for Microsoft. Not disclosing the client you are working for or its agenda or intentions is obviously unethical. Refusing to acknowledge, discuss or correct your misdeeds is bad, reputation-damaging PR and indicative of the sort of defensive arrogance that big PR agencies suffer from today. Sadly, Burson fits neatly in that category.
Harold Burson told the following to The Australian in 1998: "I'm totally opposed to front organizations that do not disclose where their funding comes from and to my knowledge - we're a big company - we have never started or organized a group where the funding sponsorship was unknown."
Harold Burson has a blog that supposedly “discusses issues related to communications and reputation.” So, I left a comment on Mr. Burson’s blog last week politely asking if he could offer perspective on the news about Microsoft and Burson. I guess he has no perspective since my comment never appeared. So much for the new “transparency” or the conversation we are supposed to be having through blogs.
The bad news keeps piling up for Burson. In a story for Salon called "Countrywide puts lipstick on the pig," Andrew Leonard takes issue with Burson’s “crisis management” work for the giant, troubled mortgage lender. It seems that the CEO of Countrywide pocketed $138 million last year while 12,000 Countrywide workers were about to be fired. Burson’s response to this is an exhortation for Countrywide employees to fight back and stand strong in the face adversity. The talking points for the “Protect Our House” crusade that Burson concocted are so bizarre that it would make for interesting fiction if it were not true.
Now, Blackwater has hired Burson to put a positive gloss on gun-toting, outside-the-law vigilantes who siphon off hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to wage a private war in Iraq. I am sure that Burson has a ready-made defense for accepting this client – everybody deserves representation, and all that – but the reality is that Burson is part of WPP Group plc and the parent company demands constant escalation of the revenue stream. And you can bet that Blackwater has very deep pockets, thanks to our tax money. The equation has a perverse elegance when you think about it: We pay Blackwater over $800 million to shoot first and ask questions later, and they pay Burson a few million to tell us what we should really think about it. Isn’t PR beautiful?
Burson’s refusal to take responsibility for its actions or engage the public threatens to overshadow some of its good work. Erin Byrne, Chief Digital Strategist for Burson, is a regular contributor to the Digital Perspective blog. In a recent post, she noted the firms’ work on behalf of the new $5 bill. The website and flash demo expertly demonstrates how the web can be used to convey messages and images where words alone, and traditional media relations outreach, might fail. Burson should win an award for this work and the rest of us, if we’re smart, can learn a few things from the intelligent, web-based presentation of this news.
Can’t somebody in the Burson digital group impress upon the rest of the firm that we are living in the digital age, the age of involvement and dialogue, the age of transparency? Or haven’t they heard?
Mark Rose is editor of PRBlogNews - a web publication focusing on public relations practices in the digital age.
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