The Unwritten Rule on Talking About Clients

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Image by Hamed Saber

The Burson Marstellar Facebook fiasco brings up an important issue: Talking about your clients publicly. Burson’s statement doesn’t cut the mustard for owning the issue, and seems to slough off responsibility on Facebook and the media for smeering Google. Beyond the substantial ethics issues at hand, Burson crossed another line, which is talking about its clients in a negative light.

Burson’s ethics were already compromised by their willingness to take on smeer campaign. By talking about it in this fashion, Burson’s ethics have been compromised twice. This is comparable to a lawyer violating client confidentiality oath or a reporter revealing their sources.

Given its past history of privacy behavior, it’s no surprise that Facebook engaged in additional shady behavior. Burson’s behavior is more befitting of small public affairs shops off K Street in Washington, DC. Granted, it is hard for larger entities to account for the acts of their employees. Burson’s only recourse in this matter was to own it, not say anything about Facebook, and simply fire the employees and/or engage in system wide ethics training.

Instead, we have the ensuing quagmire of ethics and finger pointing. Assuredly, anyone considering Burson Marstellar will not only weigh the ethics of the Facebook assignment, but whether or not the firm will throw them under the bus.

It used to be talking about clients was taboo, at least without permission. It was considered unethical, and often clients did not want to grant public agency recognition. Agencies and consultancies were hired to make their client look good, not themselves. That was understood, and even further understood was the principle that you NEVER talk badly about your client. It reflects poorly on the agency.

In recent years, social media has changed that with some personalities flashing their client rosters in updates and blog posts like Foursquare badges. Yet many consultants and marketers still feel uncomfortable with this new loose role of the spokesperson/agency. These practitioners know that while a social media personality may make a splash for a client, they need capacity internally for social media to have authenticity, and build long term relationships with a community. So the rule remains for many of us, and when we do talk (usually upon request to benefit a client), we do so with permission and full disclosure.

In the end, the takeaways for professionals are pretty straight forward. Unethical assignments risk being exposed. If you don’t take this kind of work, it’s not an issue. But even more so, don’t violate the unwritten rule on talking about clients without permission, and never do so in a negative light. Clients want to trust their consultants with their best interests, and know that they will be secure.

What do you think of Burson Marstellar’s behavior in this matter?


  • Sounds like something else was going on behind the scenes. Might it be possible that something even worse was in the mix, and this was Burson’s way of firing Facebook?

    • Given the client, you are more than likely correct.  An alternative way to signal that without doing what they did, was simply to announce that Burson Marstellar has invoked their 30 day contract termination clause (or whatever it is). What’s bad though is the finger pointing between unnamed sources in each org.   Let Facebook do that, I say. They already have a bad rep. People will likely assume it is them anyway.

  • Man, crap like this always pulls down the ethical PR peeps. Geoff, this isn’t really surprising considering it’s Burson Marstellar. The questionable ethical activity starts at the top. Their CEO is Mark Penn, the guy who was running Hillary Clinton’s communications shop in the 2008 primary, and who was shopping “was Obama doing drugs?” statements on MSNBC and to every media outlet he could find and other such political nonsense. It makes sense that Facebook would latch on to Burson to run this kind of privacy smear campaign because Zuck and Penn are just like two ethically-challenged peas in a pod. 

    • And it makes the subsequent behavior make sense.  It’s too bad, but then again, all parties are kind of reaping what they sewed.

  •  I think one point that needs to be emphasized is this is not just a large agency problem.  I know of several small agencies and individual consultants who also forget about this important ethical issue way too often.  Just because they work with a smaller local or regional company, instead of large national brands, the ethics should not change. 

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