A woman from Burson-Marsteller came into our class today to talk to us and recruit. Perfectly nice lady who gave a good, informative presentation. She discussed their work routines, training program, expectations for a resume and job-seeking tactics. Overall, it was a helpful session.
You know what she didn’t talk about, though? The fact that Burson-Marsteller once had Nicolae Ceauşescu as a client. Or the fact that they designed
Union-Carbide Dow Chemical’s attempt to save face in the wake of the Bhopal disaster. Or that they worked with an Argentinian dictator at the end of the ’70s and beginning of the ’80s. Or that they astroturfed for Phillip-Morris Atria in the ’90s. Or that they worked to promote Suharto’s (freakin’ Suharto’s) human rights credentials in the ’90s after the Santa Cruz massacre.
Fun fact from the Indonesian occupation of East Timor: Indonesian troops, as a means of intimidation to agitators for East Timor sovereignty, would cut off people’s hands and feet and then toss them into the ocean to drown (source). BM was retained by the
dictator of government of Indonesia until 1998, with their contract being renewed in ’96. And, for the record, the human rights record of the Indonesian regime continued to be, shall we say, less than stellar even with the counsel of BM.
And I’m not even going to get into the fact that Mark Penn is their worldwide CEO. And that they hired Dana Perino. And that they’re associated with Doug Schoen in any way (Penn, Schoen and Berland is their polling agency). I’ll rant about that in a future post.
Bob Somerby, in a post I’m too lazy to find, noted that journalism is primarily defined by what it does not cover and chooses not to mention. So too with public relations. Journalism and PR are both about dissemination of information. Information, when compiled, is how people construct narratives, which really is how human beings perceive and understand the world.
I’m not trying to say that all people who work for BM are raging sociopaths. The woman who talked to us today seemed like a nice lady and I’m sure there are lots of people at the company who are pleasant in person, good parents, faithful partners, fantastic dinner companions, etc, etc. I imagine a large majority of BM’s business is doing good work for clients who provide helpful goods and services.
But doing business with Ceauşescu, Suharto and other merry autocrats is what it is. You can do as much CSR as you like, but that won’t change whose money you accepted. In Intro to PR, I remember Ed Downes talking about PR practitioners’ reputations as hacks, flacks and spin doctors (catchy, eh?)
How oh how might people ever get that impression of our profession? I just can’t imagine.