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Burson-Marsteller is a public relations firm. This is a giant American company that won the best public relations company award. The firm is an experienced and respected organization that has won many other accolades and received major contracts. The issue about the public relations company Burson-Marsteller (B-M) turned out to scandalous because it brought disrepute on practitioners1.
The matter was also not addressed well at the time it went public. These companies were Burson- Marsteller and Facebook.
The companies failed in all their attempts to deal with the issue. They failed in their communication strategy and in the manner in which they responded to the media inquiries. A preview of the issue tells us that B-M was caught creating a whisper campaign against Google for an undisclosed Facebook client.
Google and Facebook are involved in competition to control online advertisements. Burson and Marsteller’s were competing reporters who were instructed to write destructive information about Google. B-M had been hired by Facebook to do the dirty job as well.
B-M understood the competition between the two and saw an opportunity to make money without giving due diligence to its integrity and the damage it would have on its image in case the issue leaked. The two employees were on the job when they were caught. The matter circulated to members of the public.
Competition between the Fab Four
The Fab four American companies are Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple. These technology companies have defined and transformed the world in terms of information technology and entertainment in the twenty first century. Initially, these companies operated different businesses.
With time, they continuously transformed and fought for market dominance in the social networking industry, mobile phones and accessories, and laptops. Some of these products are their common products. All these companies are determined to be market leaders in technology.
Their aim is to control the world living rooms. The competition has grown to a neck-throat level. Some of these companies have resorted to smear campaigns. This is to enable them receive undue advantage over others. A case in focus is what happened last year between Facebook and Google. The issue involved another public relations company, Burson-Marsteller.
Each of these companies ensures that information is safeguard in the best way possible. They opt to keep both their customers and competitors guessing what product would be next in the market. This has been the key to their success. These companies are reshaping the behavior of customers because they are influencing to use electronic gadgets to access the web. These include tablets, laptops, and mobile phone devices. The competition is likely to go a notch higher as they fight to outsmart each other.
Competition between these companies is a result of intensive advertising and the enormous resources. These are the hardware, data, and the media. This means that they have to be always innovative. They are all moving in one direction implying that their objective is to control the living rooms. They have developed a system in the market that leads to imitation2.
Why the issue became a scandal
The process employed by B-M deliberately ignored the code of ethics that touches on the disclosure. This in itself implies that B-M had a hidden agenda on the overall issue. The tactics applied here such as, whispering, were negative modes, which the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) discourages. The society discourages other vices including brand washing, dirty laundering, and flogging3.
The company did not undertake due diligence in its initial steps to observe the code of ethics. Due diligence was expected from B-M because it is an experienced and renowned public relations company. The failure on their part or deliberate omission led to the issue exploding and becoming a scandal. The status of this company required it to think beyond money. It was expected to factor in other areas relevant to the company, which include the impact of the contract on the company’s image and returns on integrity.
The two accused companies did not handle the matter well when it was busted. The leadership of Burson- Marsteller resorted to shifting blame from one end to the other. The leaders claimed not to have authorized the contractual agreement, blaming it on the junior employees.
At one time, they issued a statement arguing that it was actually not a smear campaign and that they had withdrawn from the contractual agreement. A standpoint or official statement was required, but it was conspicuously missing. By the time the organization came to accept that what had happened was wrong and very unethical, it was too little too late. The damage on its part had already occurred.
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The management came out late to state that what had happened did not conform to the standardized rules of service. The statement was of no use because the damage had already been caused. Facebook on its part failed to take responsibility. Google being its competitor was disgusting to see Facebook employ dirty tricks that were shameful against its rivals.
The two companies ought to have owned the released information, and subsequently issue an apology. They should have punished the employees who were responsible and then proceeded to clean their images. It was also necessary for them to deposit an explanation regarding the same issue to PRSA4.
How Burson-Marsteller responded
Burson-Marsteller is a giant company in the public relations industry. Its response was expected to be professional. It, however, did not handle the issue professionally. This scandal was uncovered weeks after the company had received the best public relations company award.
The company fumbled to try to contain a scandal that was already blowing out of proportion. This was not professional and only served to escalate the issue5. It showed that it was prepared to neither hear the truths nor get the feelings of other players in the industry such as clients and competitors, who posted their comments on the Facebook page.
It employed a defensive mission instead of being apologetic. In addition to this, it denied being involved as soon as the issue was uncovered. One of its employees cheated that the organization had communicated with Jessica. She argued that the company was suffering from malice.
Burson-Marstellar continued to handle the issue badly when the organization declined to take action against the two employees who had orchestrated the smear campaign. The organization instead promised to offer the two employees additional classes on ethics. These people were former senior journalists. They had earned their respect through good work before. The question of taking them for extra ethics classes was therefore unnecessary6.
It only added proved that Burson – Marsteller’s was incompetent in handling communication issues, especially those arising from the media. This was wrong and did not augur well for the company. It would have been positive if the company took disciplinary actions against the two.
Failure of the same only meant that the actions of the company could be interpreted to mean the top management of the company was involved. Another reaction came from its former Chief Executive Officer who rebuked the action wondering what had gone wrong at Burson-Marsteller. A statement from the boss on the matter was evaluated to mean failure by the current leadership in handling administration matters, including communication7.
There are various lessons that can be learned from the public relations scandal. The two companies failed to use important aspects of the two-way symmetrical public relations model. The two companies did not show honesty in their contractual engagement. The best way would be to embrace honesty. Moreover, the companies should have accepted to compromise through embracing a two-way communication model.
This was lacking because B-M did not even reveal its client. Understanding the rules of disclosure would be very important. Transparency includes making public the necessary information. This avoids misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the company. It is also a need under the code of conduct.
B-M deliberately concealed information regarding Facebook, which is its client. Rules are very clear and the company overlooked them. Strict adherence could have helped the company in ending the mistake. It is also good to speak with one voice. Specific people should be assigned the duty of giving information when a crisis arises. This allows the media and the public to receive accurate information.
When the matter found its way to the public, B-M and Facebook did not show any effort that focused on achieving mutual respect. A public apology and taking actions against the two employees would have been the best way to resolve the conflict. Furthermore, B-M and Facebook failed to explore the concept of negotiation and the willingness to make compromises, as illustrated by Grunig and Todd.
They instead started offering conflicting statements over the issue. The best approach would have been to solve conflicts and promote mutual understanding.
B-M saw the rivalry between Facebook and Google and wanted to make money out of the confusion. This was in disregard to the two-way symmetric model of public relations. B-M should have resisted the urge to make money using dirty means for the sake of its reputation.
Strict adherence to the code of ethics by both the management and employees is paramount. The follow-up activities by the company to ensure implementation of the same are also a necessity. If the management of B-M were to adhere to the code of ethics, it would be definite that the matter would have taken a very different direction.
It is imperative to understand that a company shouldering any misbehavior by its employees should therefore be prepared to handle the consequences8. Burson –Marstellar and Facebook should have weighed these options, including what effect their actions would have on their company images and integrity. They did not know that these factors were important in the flop of their agendum9.
It is also necessary to understand the dynamics of the industry in which a firm is operating10. The social media is powerful such that secretes are no more. Therefore, learning what the organization can engage in may save it from a problem. The ever-advancing technology does not leave room for secrets.
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1 Applegate, Jane (Great Ideas for Your Small Business. Hoboken, N.J: Bloomberg Press, 2011), p. 76.
2 Dowling, Festing (International Human Resource Management: managing people in a multinational context. Sydney: Thomson Learning, 2008), p. 19
3 Nankervis, Chatterjee (Perspectives of Human Resource Management in the Asia Pacific. Sydney: Pearson Education Australia, 2006), p. 19.
4 Warner, Bruno (Organization Change: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2011), p. 87.
5 Miller, David (Tales from Facebook. New York: Polity, 2011), p. 45.
6 Perlman, Corey (Eboot Camp: Proven Internet Marketing Techniques to Grow Your Business. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), p. 12.
7 Croteau, Hoynes (Media/Society: Industries, Images, and Audiences. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2012), p. 90.
8 Scullion, LinehannI (nternational Human Resource Management. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 23.
9 Briscoe, Schuler (International Human Resource Management. New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 67
10 Meyerson Mitch (Success Secrets of the Online Marketing Superstars. Chicago: Dearborn Trade Pub, 2005), p. 23.