Smear. A wonderful word. Well I like the way it sounds anyway.
There are a few people in PR who wouldn’t share that view this week after Burson-Marsteller’s ‘outing’ as the agency behind a smear campaign, and Facebook’s rapid retrenchment, over work to undermine Google.
‘Smear campaign’ is a term most readily associated with politics. It might be dirty stuff, but one party having a blatant pop at another with information that makes its reputation wobble has long been seen as practically standard practice. How have all those stories about politicians found their way into the press – pure journalistic skill? No, it’s often deliberate work to spread bad information around and put the victim in the worst possible light.
What PRs need to admit, rather than getting all high and mighty about the Burston-Marsteller incident, is that smearing is an integral part of PR. You don’t work hard to further your clients’ reputations without looking at those of their competitors. You do work on statements, comments, and all forms of content that seek to position clients clearly, aggressively and often cheekily versus the competition. If bad things happen to the competition, you will often endeavour to ensure people find out. That’s business.
It’s a question of judgement, of knowing when not to go too far so that you look worse than your rival. Largely, that’s common sense. In today’s digitised media world, your attempts to smear will invariably go public, be poured over and you will be left with egg on your face.
B-M’s mistake was not taking on a brief to talk down a client’s rival on behalf of a client, it was doing it in an amateur and clumsy way without sufficient thought of how it would be unearthed and perceived. And FFS, the client was Facebook: of course it would get talked about on social media.
Smear campaigns aren’t off limits, they just can’t be hidden anymore. They’ve changed: it needs to be conversational. Smearing is now transparent.
Which reminds me, I must put a healthy dollop of strawberry jam on this toast and spread it around. Yum.