Earlier this month, the Daily Beast broke the news that Facebook had hired a powerhouse PR agency to plant negative stories about Google in the press. The agency, Burson-Marstellar, deployed two of its big guns for the campaign: Former CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman and former Hotline executive editor John Mercurio. In one e-mail, Mercurio offered to help write and place an op-ed if the recipient, blogger Chris Soghoian, would lend his name to it. The savvy Soghoian asked who was bankrolling the campaign, and when Mercurio declined to say, Soghoian made the e-mails public.
What makes this incident interesting is that on one hand, Mercurio did many things right. He used a descriptive subject line: “Op-Ed Opportunity: Google Quietly Launches Sweeping Violation of User Privacy.” His first sentence succinctly and directly summarized the ask. He provided a list of talking points, each supported by a link to an independent sources. And his offer was tantalizing: Who in Washington wouldn’t want a byline in the Washington Post?
On the other hand, Mercurio’s pitch suffered from fundamental flaws. He made no effort to connect with Soghoian. He employed the tone of a pitch rather than a conversation. And he refused to disclose his client—a fatal fuse that Soghoian knew to light.
Three minutes after he received the e-mail, Soghoian replied. “Who’s paying for this?” he asked.
The obvious lesson here is the “absolute importance” of transparency, as Burson later said in a statement. But what got lost in the ensuing brouhaha were the positive qualities of Mercurio’s pitch. How, then, do you build on Mercurio’s good practices while avoiding his bad ones?
Last week, I answered this question in a presentation to the Washington, DC, chapter of the American Marketing Association. My title plays off Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, since the essence of my advice derives from Carnegie’s timeless guidelines.
Addendum (6/13/2011): Peter Himler adds two points worth quoting about Burson:
1. The firm likely was “blinded by the allure of an irresistible new and most notable client.”
2. “This gaffe was an agency aberration, not the standard practice.”