Facebook hired a PR agency to plant negative stories about Google

We’re always reading about how the big battle online is and will be between Google and Twitter.  Earlier this week we had Esther Dyson predicting that in the long run Facebook will be bigger than its rival and prior to that we learnt what a threat Google sees in Facebook with its new focus on social

So it is always interesting to learn if these companies see it the same as the pundits. And with the story breaking that Facebook hired a PR firm to plant negative stories about Google we know they do.

The Daily Beast has revealed that Facebook hired WPP-owned PR agency Burson-Marsteller to “pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers”. That’s kind of under-handed isn’t it?

These stories apparently urged the media to investigate claims around privacy. Privacy is an issue for Google just as it is for Facebook and clearly the social network wanted to play on that and on consumer fear.

The privacy issue Facebook wanted to push centred on the Google Social Circle tool. It allows Gmail users to see information not only about their friends but also friends’ friends.

Burson-Marsteller was pushing the idea that the tool was “designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users—in a direct and flagrant violation of [Google’s] agreement with the FTC.”

As part of its media strategy Burson-Marsteller offered to help “an influential blogger write a Google-bashing column” that it said it would then send the way of The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post among others. That’s when things started to go wrong.

Does anyone in PR think that would work? Any good reporter is going to ask questions. And funnily enough blogger, Allthingsd writer Chris Soghoian, rejected the offer and instead posted the emails he had received from the agency after it wouldn’t reveal who its client was. This added heat to the story. USA Today picked it up and accused Burson-Marsteller of pushing “whisper campaign” about Google “on behalf of an unnamed client.” Except that client is not unnamed anymore:

But who was the mysterious unnamed client? While fingers pointed at Apple and Microsoft, The Daily Beast discovered that it’s a company nobody suspected—Facebook.

Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: First, because it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service, the Daily Beast revealed.

Negative campaigning can always backfire just as it has done in this case. It was an incredibly risky and ill-advised strategy. Now that it is in the public domain someone at Facebook is in deep trouble.

A number of things will no doubt come out of this: a head is bound to roll; a total lack of transparency; Facebook sees Google as its main rival; and Burson-Marsteller won’t be working for Google any time soon.

Neither Facebook nor Burson-Marsteller come out of this looking pretty.

Interesting update from Facebook’s UK agency Blue Rubicon, which says it knew nothing of the Burston-Marstellar activity.

Blue Rubicon senior partner Fraser Hardie told PRWeek: ‘We didn’t know anything about it. It’s not the sort of work we do for Facebook. It’s not something we’d advise them to do either. It appears to be only in the US – there’s no evidence of it in the UK.

“Our view is we’re completely transparent who we work for. We believe that’s the right way to work. There’s a line between advocacy and smearing and that’s a line we’re not prepared to cross.”

However, Speed Communications MD Steve Earl wrote on his blog this morning: ‘What PRs need to admit, rather than getting all high and mighty about the Burson-Marsteller incident, is that smearing is an integral part of PR.’

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  • http://www.prsa.org/ Keith Trivitt

    Unfortunately, this incident casts a negative shadow across Facebook, Burson-Marsteller and the public relations industry.

    There are two glaring issues in this instance of an ethical lapse by a high-profile PR firm:

    1. Not disclosing the client and the client’s intentions was unethical.

    2. By not being fully upfront about the client it was representing, B-M effectively became the story, rather than its client. Not disclosing the client sets Burson-Marsteller up for questioning about its ethical practices and that of its clients further down the line. Disclosure is not only the ethical thing for public relations firms to do, it is also good business practice, no matter what type of business you are in. By not disclosing the client, the story ended up being about B-M rather than about its client. And that’s not the intent of any PR firm. Therefore, journalists are rightly asking questions about why B-M is doing this and who is the client.

    For further commentary, Rosanna Fiske, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, wrote this blog post exploring the ethical issues this incident raises: http://t.co/16aoOhL

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations
    Public Relations Society of America

  • http://www.prweek.com/uk Barney Payne

    I read this in the Metro this morning. Obviously an interesting story from a Facebook perspective as barely a sole on the planet hasn’t heard of Facebook. But for Burson-Marsteller this will be the first time the majority of Metro readers have ever heard of them. Not a good first impression. B-M will be seen as an agency that is happy to use – what will be seen as, underhand tactics. This sort of thing is pretty common-place in PR I’m sure, but to be doing with such a high profile client might be seen as short-sighted.

    The other question I have on this; is that Blue Rubicon have now come out – very quickly of course, and said that they knew nothing of this and that they wouldn’t cross such a line and therefore distancing themselves from such tactics. My question is this; What is the common practice for a client who has more than one incumbent agency; are they obliged to tell the agencies what they are working on with the other agencies?

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