“Whisper-Gate” – a disaster for PR?


In a nutshell, Facebook paid PR firm Burson-Marsteller to place negative stories about Google. But even worse, B-M went along with the idea of doing this without revealing that they were representing Facebook.


On the one hand, I’m glad that the industry cares. The flood of negative publicity may just make the next PR firm think again about engaging in duplicitous behaviour, even if their moral compass has gone south. The fall out may put them off. And if any good can come of this sorry story, I hope this is it.


On the other hand, this is a sordid stain on the reputation of the entire industry. In 1992, I’d just returned to the UK after taking a couple of years out doing voluntary missionary work in Ohio, US and I was trying to decide which subject to studied at university. With interests in English, History, Design and Journalism, I was referred to a fledgling degree in public relations. I was put off by the innuendo associated with lying Spin Doctors.

However, I met with one of the most influential PR experts in the UK, Professor Anne Gregory, who outlined a vision of an industry dedicated to open, honest, transparent two-way communications. She challenged me to join the industry and help change it and its reputation.

While I can’t say I’ve had much impact, I have always tried to follow the idiom that I’ve passed on as advice to any of my teams that “honesty is the best policy.”

Maybe, just maybe, the digital age will force organisations into adopting this policy as the default position for communications. Transparency is not only the right moral choice, but it is increasingly the only practical choice in a world where IP addresses give the game away to tech-savvy people.


I’m angry that the Whisper-Gate fiasco will reinforce stereotypes about PR practitioners when, in fact, it is the positive role that strategic level PR can play in the commercial and corporate world which excites me.

PR can be a Corporate Mirror of Truth, reflecting how actions, words and intentions will be interpreted by key audiences – and counselling the executive wisely as a result.

Gil Rudawsky has written an excellent blog on Whisper-Gate. He includes five common sense points for all PR people to remember:

1. Ethics is not an abstract word. Live it, breathe it, and incorporate it into every action. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it will help reset the bar for the industry—and let you sleep at night.
2. Be prepared to say “no” to a client. This applies no matter how big or small the client is. Clients hire PR firms for their expertise and counsel, not just to carry out their campaigns. We are not a service industry, nor just vendors; we are partners with our clients.
3. Check out your client’s claims. If they say they did nothing wrong, check it out before telling the world they did nothing wrong. Remember, the messenger gets shot most often.
4. Set reasonable expectations. It doesn’t matter how good you are; selling a nominal product or idea won’t get results.
5. Maintain credibility. We are in this for the long haul, and misleading our contacts by misrepresenting our interests today will only hurt us tomorrow.

When I met Harold Burson…

It is almost exactly 10 years (Sep. 29, 2001) when I was fortunate enough to host an evening at Leeds Metropolitan University when B-M’s co-founder Harold Burson gave a speech to mark his return to his parents’ birthplace to receive an honorary degree (yes, and be named as an honorary Yorkshire Man).

He is now 90-years-old but still blogging. In a 2009 blog entry, he stated: “The public relations professional helps hone the messages that will be most persuasive to the audience and selects the… mix of media that will deliver the messages most credibly and economically. It goes without question that this process take place within the context of uncompromised dedication to truth and transparency.”

Unfortunately, the actions of Facebook and B-M have called the PR industry’s commitment to transparency into question. But I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.


8 thoughts on ““Whisper-Gate” – a disaster for PR?

  1. Dare I say they did it may have been (just guessing here) because they didn’t want to say no to high paying client who may have been threatening to whip their business away, you need a very strong senior team to say no in the face of that!

  2. Way to go to reinforce a stereotype. I’ve spent more than 10 years fighting two of these – the view that in PR you are a spin doctor and/or, the somehow worse, fluffy PR girl.

    I thought we were getting somewhere. What a shame. Behaviour likes this sets us all back.

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