Posts tagged ‘Chris Soghoian’

Is There an Honest Way to Go Negative?

I spend most of my time counseling clients on content marketing strategies to achieve measurable business objectives. The rise of social media and other factors like the decline of the technology trade press has totally changed the focus of my firm over the past 4-5 years. That said, some of my agency’s engagements still involve more  traditional PR tactics on behalf of clients.

When you practice PR, sooner of later you will have a client ask “how can we get someone to tell the real story about competitor A, or industry issue B?” And by “real story,” they mean a story that reflects their view, not the conventional wisdom. In cases like this, what’s a practitioner of “ethical persuasion” — a favorite term from my master’s degree at American University — to do?

Last year there was an ugly case study of how NOT to handle such a situation. In probably the biggest PR scandal of the year, Burson Marsteller was caught trying to anonymously smear Google on behalf of Facebook. The whole thing went public when security blogger Chris Soghoian refused to participate. He was angered when Burson’s John Mercurio would not reveal the client paying for the “whisper campaign,” and publicized his email exchanges with Mercurio.

In many of these cases the client isn’t being objective, and the reporting being done on a competitor or key issue is reasonably accurate. Then an entirely different and potentially uncomfortable conversation is needed.

But for the purposes of this post let’s assume the client is correct in their view. The media is missing a big story of some kind, and if the story was reported differently it would benefit your client.

Here are some suggested rules of the road:

  • Publish it yourself — counsel the client to tell the story from their own publishing platform, their blog or social community.  Often this isn’t seen as feasible, but every once in a while a client will wade openly into the marketplace of ideas even when the topic is controversial
  • Do your homework and have the facts on  your side — don’t make it a subjective call
  • Full disclosure of your relationship to the issue — who you are, what your bias is, who your client is
  • Go to media you respect, and with whom you have a good relationship. This is where the decline of the trades really hurts, because there are far fewer experienced reporters who want to or have the time and resources to really dig into a story
  • Remember that you are offering a point of view and third party information – they’ll write the story if interested

Sounds pretty simple, right? Often of course it’s not, in the heat of the moment and with a client demanding results. But these principles represent the best chance of success for the client, and for remaining true to yourself and the boundaries of ethical persuasion.

February 3, 2012 at 9:39 pm 1 comment

Burson and Facebook Embarrass Themselves

Image courtesy of AP/Daily Beast

Previously on this blog I’ve stated that I love the B2B/B2G focus on my agency. We don’t try to sway the masses, manipulate legislation or try to rehabilitate the reputations of foreign dictators. We help our clients achieve their business objectives — sell more of their stuff/services to be blunt — using social media channels.

I was thankful for this when I read about the sad story of Burson Marsteller and Facebook. In a sordid display of how “traditional PR” is practiced by some “blue-chip” firms, Facebook hired Burson to conduct a “whisper campaign” against Google, accusing them of privacy violations. Burson did not to disclose Facebook as their client, and assigned two prominent former journalists, former CNBC anchor Jim Goldman and former HOTLINE/National Journal reporter John Mercurio to the case.

The plan was for you and me to be reading opinion pieces in the Washington Post, Politico, Huffington Post and others bashing Google for privacy violations against “millions of Americans.” Kudos to security and privacy blogger Chris Soghoian for exposing the smear campaign by making public the emails he received from Mercurio — you can check them out here.

This led to stories by Dan Lyons in the Daily Beast, USA Today and Tech Crunch, which gets the award for the juiciest headline. For me the best quote goes to the Lyons story about Goldman and Mercurio — “Here were two guys from one of the biggest PR agencies in the world, blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops.”

Since I’ve criticized USA Today for being overly credulous about technology stories in the past, I guess it’s only fair to give them credit for passing on this non-story. In the piece they did run on the PR controversy, USA Today makes the fair point that there are plenty of legitimate privacy questions about Google — Facebook didn’t have to create a bogus one.

I work hard to promote the interests of my clients, but with transparency about who I am and who my clients are. To me this is a prerequisite for success in social media channels. Clients simply need to think of themselves as thought leaders in their particular niche, which they usually are. Then publish interesting, objective content on a regular basis, attract an audience and engage that audience in a way that supports the business goals of the organization.

Often this is easier to describe than execute, I’ll grant you. But it has none of the moral ambiguity of former journalists trying to work their rolodexes and manipulate public opinion with a bogus story on behalf of an anonymous client.

May 13, 2011 at 7:12 am 2 comments


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