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How not to take on Google: hire a PR firm to spread a secret smear campaign about its privacy policies.
That goes double for Facebook, which itself has been the target of serious concerns involving user privacy issues. But that's exactly what Facebook did, according to Dan Lyons of The Daily Beast, who uncovered the social network's covert plan to discredit Google by trying to get bloggers and news outlets to write negative stories about the Mountain View company.
Burson-Marsteller, a prominent PR firm, was revealed to have sent letters to Christopher Soghoian , an online privacy advocate, pitching him on the idea, and promising to help get the post to news organizations like The Washington Post, Politico, The Hill, and The Huffington Post:
I wanted to gauge your interest in authoring an op-ed this week for a top-tier media outlet on an important issue that I know you’re following closely.
The topic: Google’s sweeping violations of user privacy. Google, as you know, has a well-known history of infringing on the privacy rights of America’s Internet users. Not a year has gone by since the founding of the company where it has not been the focus of front-page news detailing its zealous approach to gathering information – in many cases private and identifiable information - about online users.
Soghoian, rather than take the bait, asked the sender who exactly was paying for the pitch, to which Burson-Marsteller replied, "I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet. But all the information included in this email is publicly available." Soghoian published the emails rather than go along with this plan.
The Daily Beast soon learned that Facebook was behind the pitch:
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.
To make matters worse for Facebook, USA Today revealed that Burson had also been engaged in a campaign to get media outlets, including USA Today, to run stories on how Google's Social Circle feature is a threat to privacy. Spearheading the campaign were former CNBC anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio.
Social Circles is a Gmail feature that lets users see information about friends and friends of friends, by gathering information through external social networks, including Facebook. The intial pitch email to Soghoian that the feature "totally disregards the intimate and potentially damaging details that could be revealed," calling it a "sweeping violation of user privacy."
But, as Lyons points out, what Facebook really seems to be angry about is Google's use of Facebook's data to bolster its social offerings. Google told him that "Facebook’s allegation about Google improperly using data was a new one and the company needed time to consider a response."
Facebook is understandably proprietary over the user information that has made it such a valuable company. Google has also announced its intentions to spread into the social sphere aggressively. That the companies would clash is a given--but this campaign is not likely to help Facebook's cause. It's like Facebook tried to throw eggs at Google and they fell back on Zuckerberg's face.
Criticism of Facebook is already piling up.
Secretly paying a PR firm to pitch bloggers on stories going after Google, even offering to help write those stories and then get them published elsewhere, is not just offensive, dishonest and cowardly. It’s also really, really dumb. I have no idea how the Facebook PR team thought that they’d avoid being caught doing this.
Business Insider has another take:
[P]itching "scandalous" stories about competitors that aren't actually scandalous is a favorite sleazy PR technique. But the fact that this one was coming from Burson Marsteller--a high-end global communications firm--and former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman makes this one noteworthy. Especially because it suggests that some of the groundswell of anti-Google sentiment in Washington may have been driven by secret paid attack-campaigns like this one.
[UPDATE: 9:30 A.M.] Burson-Marsteller has acknowledged the campaign and issued the following statement, courtesy of FT:
Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle.
[UPDATE: 12:20 P.M.] Facebook has issued the following statement:
No 'smear' campaign was authorized or intended. Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles—just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.
You and your readers can look at the feature and decide if they have approved of this collection and use of information by clicking here when their Google account is open: http://www.google.com/s2/search/social. Of course, people who do not have Gmail accounts are still included in this collection but they have no way to view or control it.