Burson-Marsteller rightfully took a severe drubbing last week for its clandestine work in behalf of Facebook.

The firm admitted it was wrong in spreading negatives about Google for client Facebook. Facebook also admitted wrongdoing.

What got us was that PR Society of America chair Rosanna Fiske sent out remarks worldwide condemning B-M, figuring this was a golden opportunity to say how ethical the Society is and why doesn’t everyone act like the Society.

She gave live interviews to media including the New York Times (twice), Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Financial Times and the U.K.’s Telegraph. Other quotes were in Advertising Age and Der Spiegel of Germany.

There’s only one problem: the PRS Code only pertains to individual members. The only PRS member in the New York office of B-M is founder Harold Burson.

If PRS is going to criticize anyone, it would have to be Burson.

He agreed today that the Society has “no jurisdiction” in this matter and that, in any case, he had no knowledge of B-M’s work for Facebook. Only about two B-M people were involved in that, he said.

There are only 15 other PRS members among the 1,000 or so U.S. B-M employees—four in Pittsburgh, three each in Chicago and Dallas and others in various offices. Five of the members are junior staffers.

No Code Enforcement

The Code not only has no enforcement mechanism, but the Assembly last year removed the word “violation” twice from the bylaws so there can be no hint of PRS ever taking any action against a member.

Thus, although all its members are absolved from any criticism whatever, it’s just fine for PRS itself to bust on any organization that does something allegedly unethical.

Fiske said, among other things, that “Under the Society code, B-M would be obligated to reveal its client and to disclose the client’s intentions.”

The Code does not apply to organizations.

If B-M employees had participated in the described activities, or had knowledge of them, they would have such an obligation.

But in no case would Fiske or anyone from the Society ever criticize such a person. This is a form of double standard.

The Society’s website bragged about her being interviewed and quoted

Fiske Hits B-M with Numerous Charges

She told the NYT that B-M violated the “essence of PR code of ethics

The WSJ was told that B-M was guilty of “lack of disclosure” and was “deceptive.”

“Unethical and improper” were the words Fiske used in an interview with the Financial Times.

She told the Telegraph that the incident was an embarrassment” to both B-M and Facebook and that it “reflects poorly upon the global PR

The statement accuses B-M of “allegedly” engaging in “practices that are unethical and improper under the Society Code of Ethics.”

“Honesty” is one of those “core principles,” specifically meaning that members must “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented,” the statement said.

PRS Has Long Rap Sheet

PRS, which has a rap sheet about as long as the Mississippi, has no business publicly chiding any organization. If it’s going to chide organizations, it should start with itself.

PRS relieved its members of facing ethics charges in 1999 after the firm of 1999 treasurer Lee Duffey was accused of using a false front to attack the EIFS form of construction. Duffey refused to reveal the clients behind the anti-EIFS campaign.

Only three of the 40 employees of the Duffey firm were PRS members and a probe apparently found none of them were involved.

Ethics head Bob Frause sent out a memo in 1999 saying the Code was unenforceable because members threatened lawsuits when under investigation and/or refused to cooperate. A new Code, created at a cost of nearly $200K, removed enforcement.

Board Voted Press Boycott

Another reason for killing the Code was that a member accused the entire 17-member 1999 board of five ethical violations in voting a formal boycott against the O’Dwyer Co.

This reporter was accused of wasting too much time of the PRS staff in asking questions (including those about the Society’s own 1999 survey that found “PR specialist” ranked 43 on a list of 45 “believable sources of information.”

Since Fiske is such a believer in “honesty,” we would ask her how honest was the Society's 2010 financial report that books dues as cash in violation of section 5.46 of the Financial Accounting Standards Board that says dues must be recognized over the period to which they relate
(one year for Society members).

How honest was the massive theft of intellectual property of scores of authors from 1980-94 that was sold in information packets at the rate of 3,600 a year and at prices of up to $55 a packet?

How honest is withholding, since 2005, transcripts of the Assembly?

The authors had a slam-dunk legal case against PRS but none of their publishers would support them, apparently afraid of losing future business with Society members. The authors, including three PR professors, did not have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to press the case and defend against an expected counter-suit.

Assembly Is Secretive Body

Only Assembly delegates are allowed to view the entire list of the delegates. How honest is that? Members don’t know who is in the Assembly, what they say (unless they decide to physically attend an Assembly and stand in the back of the room) or how they vote. How honest is that? This is the very “failure to disclose” that Fiske complains about.

The Assembly, unrepresentative of the membership because 80% of members are non-APR while 75% of the delegates are, beat back a proposal last year to allow a non-APR to run for national office. Only APRs have had this right since the mid-1970s.

A delegate has twice threatened this reporter with beating me “to a Pulp” and the name of this person is known to some delegates and at least one national director, according to an e-mail from VP-PR Arthur Yann to me. PRS refuses to investigate this.

How honest is that?