May 13

Competitive PR is Not a Binary Sport: Exploring the Assignment-Gone-Wrong at Burson-Marsteller

Alan Kelly

Alan Kelly
CEO and Founder, Playmaker Systems, LLC
Adjunct Professor, The George Washington University
Author, The Elements of Influence

Before we channel even one of Arthur Page’s principles, there are some practical lessons to be learned about the ill-fated Facebook/Burson-Marsteller campaign to expose and de-position Google.

• The fact is, PR is a competitive function. And while we’d all hope for better from our peers at Facebook and B-M, this is more a case of incompetence than malpractice.

• If we’re going to engage in any form of communication beyond the utterly factual transmission of things, we should understand that the transition from information to interpretation is not binary. It is gradual and spectral. It is not a matter of on-and-off, black-and-white, punch-or-no-punch. Communicators have myriad options by which to position, re-position and de-position their respective agendas and rivals thereto. Perhaps at Burson-Marsteller they were acting on a hyper-competitive client’s demands for immediate and punishing results. That’s my bet. Or perhaps they lacked the experience, patience or budget to appropriately expose the short-comings or even wrong-doings of Google and its content-scraping ways. Either way, the plays they employed chose crude weaponry over fine instruments and maneuver warfare over diplomacy.

• Just as we saw in the Dept. of Education/Ketchum matter a few years back, this case is as much about attribution as ethics. The failure to identify a client’s identity is a basic error. Had inquiries been answered honestly and immediately – even proactively – there’d be no PRgate to navigate.

After all, PR is a competitive function. We all know it. It’s just not in our interest to give away house secrets.

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