The curtain was pulled back when the "PR Agency of the Year" (Holmes Report) was revealed to have been hired by Facebook to conduct a "whisper" smear campaign against Google. Facebook wanted everyone from reporters to bloggers to comment that Google's ring of fire Social Circle was as evil and untrustworthy as Saddam. Facebook, of course, would never do anything sneaky and underhanded with all the personal data they've been collecting. Somehow Facebook figured that upstanding Burson-Marsteller -- paragon of truth, justice and the American way -- would have no problem laying aside its gleaming white armor and pulling out rusty switchblades for some good, old-fashioned black ops PR work: leaking negative stories to the press. And Facebook was right! Burson stooped to the occasion and sent two skulky bust-out journalists, who traded in their copies of Turabian for lowly flack hats, to do the dirty deeds. The whole Nixonian affair came to light when a blogger, who Burson's agents of nay-saying were trying to manipulate, published all the incriminating emails.
If you believe what companies say about themselves, all this public nastiness might be a big surprise. A thorough examination of the Burson-Marsteller Web site yields an impressive list of services based on its proprietary "evidence based communications," but nary a word on "whisper campaigns." These are clearly part of its roster of secret services -- available, presumably, with the right password or handshake, which opens the door to a speakeasy of intoxicatingly evil offerings. Facebook knew the handshake -- why wouldn't it -- Burson has a Facebook page! But what's really revealing about these two companies is not what they did before the fact, but what happened after they were caught.
Both Burson and Facebook pointed at each other for leading the charge into the dark side. It was Burson, however, which compounded the problem by attempting to cover up its deeds by removing posts critical of its campaign. Its own Burson Blog has no reference to the incident, just self-congratulatory photos of arrogantly smug new hires. There is a terse statement that addresses and dismisses the issue as a mistake, claiming that it'll turn down black bag assignments in the future. Really? What 15-year-old intern developed this "we were just following orders" mea culpa? Burson is missing an opportunity here: instead of running from the publicity, it should embrace it and launch its line of Secret Services.
PR and marketing firms have provided ungentlemanly services for years -- just look at any agency that's done political work and you'll find hard drives loaded with the kind of data most people would like to keep buried. Burson, with its global reach and invasive tentacles groping through the media's intestines at every level, is in a wonderful position to utilize power and connections for the good of bad. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at Facebook, it should have embraced the plan -- the only actual failure was in the execution!
Imagine the kind of business Burson could attract for black ops work. There's no shortage of companies that would find marketing much easier if their competition was suddenly rendered a market pariah. One company's trouble can make another company's quarter. My advice to the geniuses at Burson: there's no such thing as being a little pregnant; you've already crossed the line and doffed the Black Hat -- wear it with pride.