As a PR professional working for fourteen years in agencies, in-house and now running my own business, you get used to working with companies that have been ‘burnt’ by bad PR agencies or journalists who have been lied to or messed around by ‘PR professionals’.

Of course, it’s easy to make generalisations about the professional industries we work in, but I think there is a strange irony that many companies and organisations look to PR agencies to help them manage their communications and their reputation, yet many agencies don’t seem to be very good at managing their own.

The Burson-Marsteller Facebook PR fiasco has raised the question of ethics in the PR industry and dealt another blow to those trying to improve the perception of the communications business. Two ‘high level-employees’ from Burson-Marsteller attempted to push out a negative PR campaign against its client’s (Facebook) competitor, Google.

For those of us who have worked in the industry for a while, negative PR campaigns are not new. I’ve been asked by clients in the past to spread less than positive stories about competitors to journalists and bloggers, in the hope that they will run the story. The answer has and will always remain no.

What is interesting in this case is just how naïve these consultants, who also happen to be ex-journalists, were. The campaign involved trying to get several top media outlets in the US to write news stories and editorials about how Google was invading privacy from Americans using their Social Circle features. They offered to ghost write columns, and offered journalists to help them get their stories published in other major newspapers.

Did they not think that emails to journalists were traceable? In an interconnected world, where agencies are putting more faith in social media, I can’t really believe that they thought this activity would be kept ‘hidden’. Whether the claims against Google were right or wrong, it doesn’t matter.

As a PR professional and member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, I’ve accepted to follow a code of ethics. That code is printed for everyone to see on its website;

I ensure that my team live and breathe this code, incorporating it into every action. Indeed, like most PR practitioners, the ‘code of ethics’ is rarely consulted. You know where the line is and when not to cross it.

But it seems, not everyone knows where the line is. Burson-Marsteller haven’t sacked the reps involved but vowed to ‘talk through our policies and procedures with each individual in the program and make clear this cannot happen again’.

Of course, an open and transparent way to voice these concerns was available to the team at Burson-Marsteller. They could have pitched an opinion piece, written on behalf of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about his concerns for consumer privacy and how he thought the Social Circle features from Google breached it. I’m sure he would have had plenty of interest.

That option was rejected in favour of trying to persuade journalists to write negative stories about Google. So, Burson-Marsteller will redistribute its code of ethics to all employees? Will that work? Is it enough when a large and important client puts pressure on you to engage in negative PR campaigns against the competition?

At the very least I think every PR agency should provide their ‘code of ethics’ to every staff member, every year, particularly with new team members. It might be pointing out the obvious to most, but clearly in this case, the message didn’t get through.

Some would argue it’s because they were ex-journalists and were unaware of the implications of their actions and the responsibility PR practitioners have towards their clients and their employers. We are in the business of managing reputations for our clients after all. Perhaps it’s time we looked at our own?