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May 10, 2011
Op-Eds Aren't For Phantoms
 
Disclosure is, or ought to be, a prime tenet of public relations. Contacting a writer to ascertain his interest in doing an op-ed piece on behalf of an unnamed client isn't a sterling example of responsible PR. Instead, it's the sort of thing that gives the craft a murky name. In this instance, the errant practitioner works for Burson-Marsteller.

Digital Journal is calling attention to an email string in which Burson's John Mercurio asks Christopher Soghoian, a blogger on security and privacy issues, whether he'd be interested in writing an op-ed piece on behalf of an unnamed client. He outlines what the piece might cover. The subject would be Google's privacy practices. "Who is paying for this? (not paying me, but paying you)," Soghoian asks. 

"I'm afraid I can't disclose my client yet," Mercurio responds. "But all the information included in this email is publicly available. Any interest in pursuing this?" Apparently, nothing more became of the exchange.

Mercurio was hired by Burson-Marsteller from the The National Journal as a media director last June. Digital Journal identifies him now as a vice president. Be that as it may, his tender to Soghoian is certainly questionable. Op-ed pieces are supposed to spring fresh from the minds of their writers, not be prompted by skullduggery. It's possible Mercurio might have disclosed his client to Soghoian later. But the damage in terms of the standards shown by this PR executive has already been done.

Whether or not Mercurio is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, PRSA's disclosure standard is clear, and appropriate, enough: "Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented," it says.

Digital Journal's blog post isn't especially well-written. It uses Mercurio's situation as an example of why "branded content" ought to be developed for today's extra challenging media market. No example is given, though, of what that might look like in an instance like this.

Anyhow, if you think an op-ed piece might be a good idea, at least let the prospective writer know whose interest might be involved. Maybe he could use them as a source. Or nix the whole idea.

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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