Burson-Marsteller is one of the largest public relations and lobbying firms in the world and has been at the center of controversy due to many of its projects with various clients. For example, Burson-Marsteller headed public relations for the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the 1967 Biafran War. The corporation generated and released information to local and global news agencies for Union Carbide (now owned by Dow Chemical Company) in the wake of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster, a catastrophic chemical gas leak responsible for immediately killing 3,500 people and over 20,000 since then due to exposure to residual toxins. Most recently, in May 2011, Facebook was exposed as a secret Burson-Marsteller client when the public relations company was caught attempting to plant anti-Google stories in the media and deliberately obscuring involvement with Facebook.
Burson-Marsteller boasts an enormous range of services. Its government services include promoting foreign investments and tourism, improving global media relations, and organizing campaigns to bolster governmental public opinion. Political services include planning campaign tactics and constructing party platforms. Burson-Marsteller also facilitates public education, media relations, and communications for corporations. It has assisted clients in promoting public reception to new technologies, such as promoting genetically modified foods for Monsanto throughout the 1990’s. The company is a self-described expert in the global energy industry and government industry.
What is this organization?
While officially established in 1953, Burson-Marston truly began as humble Harold Burson Public Relations, an eponymously staffed one-man business that was started in 1946. Burson-Marston grew from its inception onwards, reaching its apex in 1983 when it became the self-styled “world’s largest public relations firm”. Today it remains among the very largest and most skilled PR firms, judging from its diverse and powerful clientele. As of 2002, the company employed 2,000 people in over 20 offices across 35 countries. Today, the company has offices on every continent except Antarctica.
Burson-Marsteller is owned by the massive WPP Group among over 100 other subsidiaries. WPP is the world’s largest advertising group by revenue. WPP’s revenue in 2007 was self-reported as 6,186m GBP, or 9,774m USD.
The same 2007 report also highlighted successes in Burson-Marsteller’s current projects. It has been recognized for conducting a highly successful tourism program via the online virtual community Second Life, on behalf of the Mexico Tourism Board. The company also “led the digital launch of the redesigned $5 note on behalf of the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing” and launched corporate websites for the Kraft Foods Company and Hormel Foods.
Burson-Marsteller has had a history of being hired to campaign against Google using subversive tactics that, once uncovered, have embroiled its clients and the company itself in controversy.
The company’s poor history with Google extends back to September 2007. Microsoft’s partnership with Burson-Marsteller became public news when reports surfaced of Microsoft’s attempts to block a pending merger of Google, Inc. and DoubleClick. The merger, which was announced in April of the same year, came under scrutiny over concerns of monopolizing the online advertising market. Microsoft had lost the auction for DoubleClick to Google. On Microsoft’s behalft, Burson-Marsteller created an online petition and organization for companies to join called the Initiative for Competitive Online Marketplace (iCOMP), which would lobby for blocking the Google–DoubleClick merger. Controversy arose when Jonathan Dinkeldein, a director of Burson-Marsteller, wrote an email to over 100 companies urging them to join iCOMP while failing to indicate his work was on behalf of Microsoft, violating his company and the PR industry’s code of conduct. As news media picked up the story, controversy swelled as public perceptions of hypocrisy on Microsoft’s part were stoked by critical reporting, considering the disagreement between Microsoft’s presentation of concern for maintaining competitive marketplaces and its engagement in aggressive monopolistic practices of its own.
The discovery that Facebook had hired Burson-Marsteller to plant news stories severely critical of Google’s privacy practices began in May 2011 when a representative of the PR corporation contacted well-known online security and privacy blogger Christopher Soghoian, asking him to write a piece on Google’s violations of user privacy. The representative also offered to place the article in such publications as the Washington Post, Politico, and the Huffington Post. When the representative explicitly refused to reveal the identity of his client in response to questioning, as per standard operating procedure for PR firms, Mr. Soghoian leaked the email exchange. Subsequent investigation by news media revealed the client was Facebook and that the smear campaign was conceived in response to the Google’s upcoming “Social Circles” project, now known as Google Plus.
Compounding the controversy over the disreputable practices of Burson-Marsteller on behalf of Facebook was the attention called to Facebook’s hypocrisy concerning issues with maintaining its own user privacy. To make matters even worse, in dealing with the fallout over the public relations disaster, Burson-Marsteller was caught red-handed deleting posts on its own Facebook page that were critical of the company’s actions.
What’s your take on Burson-Marsteller? Are its actions excusable, since it is a corporation? When is it ethical or unethical for a corporation to work for certain clients? Is it ethical to clean up public relations in response to “crises” such as the Bhopal Disaster?