PR Agencies Keep Trying “Stealth.” Why? (*Updated)

By now, you’d think the major PR firms, the ones staffed by the crème de la crème, that snag the biggest, most prestigious accounts, would have learned that you can’t get away with a campaign premised on hiding the identity of the client.

Doing so is regarded as unethical by everyone you’re trying to persuade. Disclosure–which is almost inevitable–has a disproportionately negative effect, and the client risks being left in a worse position than if they’d done nothing.

But “nothing” of course means “no fees for you.” So instead of giving clients a real-world expectation of the dangers of a super-secret stealth campaign in an era of relentless transparency, agencies push bad ideas that get them paid.

Burson-Marsteller has apparently spent the past few years paying no attention to their own industry. And Microsoft’s amnesia is truly incredible for a company that sells “memory.” Get a load of this from the UK Observer:

Microsoft is at the centre of an embarrassing row over an attempt by a lobby firm strongly linked with the Seattle computer giant to rally opposition against rival Google’s proposed acqusition of internet marketing firm DoubleClick.

The Observer has seen an email sent by a director at leading lobby firm Burson-Marsteller to a number of top UK businesses. The email urges board members to raise the issue of Google’s dominance of search engines with politicians, regulators and the media.

The email asks companies to join a new organisation – Initiative for Competitive Online Marketplaces – which in the next few weeks will make a series of announcements on Google, internet privacy and copyright.

The email’s author is Jonathan Dinkeldein, a director of B-M. He admitted the firm was working with Microsoft on the initiative. A spokeswoman for Microsoft agreed that the firm has an ‘ongoing relationship with Burson-Marsteller’ but said it is not lobbying for Microsoft.

Relations between Microsoft and Google are fraught and the development comes at a sensitive time. Concern over Google’s dominance in online advertising prompted the US federal trade commission to probe its £1.56bn takeover of DoubleClick. Google itself asked the European Commision to investigate the takeover.

Microsoft has objected to the tie-up on the grounds that it will combine the two largest advertising distributors on the internet.

It lost in the auction for DoubleClick.

When asked about the email, Dinkeldein admited the organisation was formed by Microsoft. Dinkeldein added that his initiative attracted several orgnanisations to join it.

But executives contacted by The Observer told of their disquiet at being ‘cold-called’ in this manner. The emails included newspaper articles from the Financial Times and the Economist which some executives were concerned broke copyright rules. Others suggested that by not disclosing who Burson-Marsteller was representing, the firm was breaking the spirit of political lobby firms’ code of conduct.

Here’s what the Wall Street Journal had to say, from its subscribers-only site:

In recent months, public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller pitched media outlets and Internet companies on what it said were the dangers of the deal, which would bolster Google’s already strong presence in online advertising. In the written pitches reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Burson cites the deal as part of a larger discussion of “fair and free competition” in Internet-search and privacy rights of consumers.

In Europe, Burson urged Internet companies to become signatories on an online petition for a more “transparent and competitive Internet,” according to the pitches. It directed the companies to a Web site, www.i-comp.org, and provided user names and passwords to log in.

The pitches cited a number of groups and an individual who had signed on to the effort. The pitches didn’t disclose that Burson was working for Microsoft, Google’s largest rival.

Josh Gottheimer, an executive vice president at Burson, said the firm was hired by Microsoft to set up i-comp.org as a “discussion forum” for issues of privacy and competition. He said the firm doesn’t disclose its clients as a general practice, but said companies were told Microsoft was a member of the group. He said Burson — a unit of Young & Rubicam, which is owned by WPP Group PLC — pitched the effort to more than 100 companies and organizations.

(snip)

On Sept. 5, an executive at U.K. insurer Esure received an email from a Burson director. It asked for support for an initiative to raise awareness of competition in the Internet-search market, according to a copy viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The Burson representative wrote that he represents a “wider industry initiative” but didn’t disclose the Microsoft connection.

Adrian Webb, head of corporate communications at Esure, said he was miffed when he received the email since he sensed a Google competitor was behind the pitch. “Burson-Marsteller acts for Microsoft — this has not been stated anywhere,” in the email, Mr. Webb said yesterday.

In Europe, Microsoft has good reason to operate below the radar. Last week, a European Court upheld a ruling that found Microsoft had abused its near-monopoly position in PC computer software.

In the U.S., Burson contacted The Wall Street Journal this summer by email, referring to the “magnitude of what is not known about Google’s handling of personal data and their related privacy practices.” Without disclosing its Microsoft connection, the Burson email concluded that “it would be a powerful consumer service to delve into these issues with journalistic vigor.” Burson then offered to arrange interviews with privacy experts.

And see? None of the pushed-for stories got written, and now the merits (if any) of Microsoft’s cause will be forever stepped on by the ethical concerns around its PR agency’s campaign.

Incidentally, Burson has three blogs, here, here and here. Not one word about this on any of them.

*UPDATE:  The i-comp web site now states Microsoft is the “co-sponsor” of a “joint initiative.”  Yeah, now.  But Microsoft’s inclusion illustrates the problem.  With Microsoft’s name on a site focused on Europe, it’s much harder to keep a straight face when reading:

The companies listed below have come together to express our shared commitment to a Transparent and Competetive (sic) Internet that is responsive to consumer interests and respectful of the rule of law. 

(Microsoft has a fine product by the way…Spell check.)

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