Dear PR People: Do your actions pass the “USA Today Test?”

When I was getting started in PR I was introduced to what was called the “LA Times Test.”  In a nutshell, would you be comfortable if the actions you were about to take were outlined on the front page of the LA Times.  If not, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.  From now on, I’m going to rename this exercise the “USA Today Test” due to the great article by Jon Swartz and Byron Acohido that outlines the failure of some people, who apparently are new to PR, to understand that if you have to hide it you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

The kerfuffle began when a writer was contacted by an employee of a major international PR firm with a pitch for a story on how an obscure feature of Gmail was violating the privacy of users.  As it wasn’t disclosed in the pitch who it was made on behalf of, the writer responded, as he should, “Who is paying for this? (not paying me, but paying you).”  The response from the PR rep is what really made this a story:

“I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet. But all the information included in this email is publicly available.”   You can read the entire thread here.

Yeah. That’s bad.  You can’t say who your client is but you want a vocal privacy advocate to write something on their behalf? Failure.  This is like Mean Girls meets Silicon Valley.  As it always does, the truth comes out and it turns out it was Facebook who hired the PR Firm for this campaign.This is where it gets really interesting and BM throws their client under the bus with a statement this morning that they were SHOCKED, SHOCKED that this kind of thing was going on:

The following statement was released by Burson-Marsteller on May 12, 2011.

 “Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.

The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.  Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.

Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.”

Bottom line, if you don’t want to see your actions and your name on the front page of the USA Today, don’t do it.

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