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.’