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.
The uprising in Burma-Myanmar reached a fevered pitch this week and reminded us of how important blogging can be. Citizen journalists on the ground reported on skirmishes and posted graphic pictures of death and bloodshed as photographers were cut down by gunfire and monks were killed, beaten, corralled and confined. We may choose not to react, or we may find ourselves impotent against a far off military regime, but we cannot claim ignorance. When the junta cut Internet access I really felt their pain. I am tethered to the Internet at least six hours a day and life without it seems inconceivable. When Myanmar blogs went black it was a cruel reminder that there are still places in the world that can enslave its people and prevent the rest of humanity from peering in.
As of today the people of Myanmar are finding a way to break through the digital iron curtain. Reports and images are coming through an adept London-based blogger, Ko Htike, who is feeding news to CNN and other mainstream media for wider distribution. Burmamyanmargenocide is a good central site that is aggregating news from inside the country. Bloggers inside Burna-Myanmar are risking their jobs, businesses, families, even their lives to get the word out. We have an obligation to pass the news to the widest possible audience.
The President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, zipped through my neighborhood on the upper west side of Manhattan last week, with a quick stop at Columbia. What seemed like a tailor made PR opportunity for the nuke-loving, genocide-denying, great-Satan-hating dictator turned into a humiliating turn as the President of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, excoriated his “petty tyrant” guest. Bollinger was playing to an American audience, but Ahmadinejad was playing to his constituency. The Arab world was sympathetic to the Iranian’s slight by the Great Satan and the Iranian government was emboldened enough to label the CIA and the U.S. military “terrorist organizations.” The rationale is the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, and secret jails in other countries. So, there, after the ‘dialogue’ in the U.S. we are more polarized than ever. So when do we stop talking and start shooting?
Burson blows it big time
While Strumpette was lashing Ogilvy to the whipping post for pimping online gambling, and once again belittling Ronn Torossian for flacking Girls Gone Wild, Burson-Marsteller, supposedly a blue chip PR firm, was really mucking in the sleaze. Burson has been fronting a bogus organization on behalf of Microsoft to try to stop Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick. The organization was PRing for a “more transparent and competitive Internet,” but failed to tell reporters and organizations that Burson was on this mission at the behest of Microsoft. Burson was busted by The Guardian and then The Wall Street Journal followed with an in-depth piece. The organization, Initiative for Competitive Online Marketplaces (ICOMP) now says right up front on its website that this is a Burson-Microsoft scheme. The pathetic list of “signatories” to this initiative underscores its utter failure.
It seems that PR firms will always push the ethical envelope but it is up to individual account people to take responsibility for their actions. I have a simple rule in contacting the media. Within 15 seconds of the call the reporter will know: a) who I am b) who I represent c) why I am calling. No bull, no schemes, no lies. Simple. Burson’s actions here are reprehensible. I would think they know better but obviously they don’t. Let’s see if Harold Burson addresses this sad episode on his blog.
On Thursday, March 8, 2007 at 7:41 AM, Ronn Torossian, President and CEO of 5WPR, emphatically promised that he was going to sue us. No real reason, he was just irritated by our teasing him about getting in bed with pornographer Joe Francis. Anyway, Ronn gave his obscenity-laced word that we'd see the complaint in 72 hours. It's now late by
Kathleen Durazo about A Measly $2.8 Million Goes Missing, Lawsuit Results Fri, Jul 31, 10:58:34 AM Ray Durazo (the founder) sold the company to Dan in 1999. He was not involved in any of this. He (and I) found out about the lawsuit in the LA Times. In addition to embezzling this m [...]