According to USA Today, Burson-Marsteller, a top-five PR firm, started a “whisper campaign” aimed at getting newspapers (including USA Today) to run stories about how an obscure Gmail feature, Social Circle, infringes on peoples’ privacy and violates FTC rules. But Google said that Social Circle lets customers make social connections using public and private connections across Google products without skirting privacy.
The campaign was spearheaded by Burson-Marsteller’s Jim Goldman, a former CNBC tech correspondent, and former political columnist John Mercurio on behalf of an unnamed client. Goldman pitched the Social Circle issue as a huge privacy breach to Google users and an important story for consumers, said USA Today, and Mercurio even offered to ghost-write an op-ed column on the topic for Christopher Soghoian, a former FTC researcher and blogger, and to help him get it published in major D.C.-based news outlets. But Soghoian published Mercucio’s pitch (and his own subsequent rejection of it) on the Web, foiling the publicists’ plan.
Chris Gaither, Google's senior manager of global communications and public affairs, responded to USA Today, "We have seen this email reportedly sent by a representative of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. We're not going to comment further. Our focus is on delighting people with great products.”
While sleazy PR firms trying to spread scandalous stories is old hat, Business Insider explained, what sets this incident apart is that it comes from high-end firm Burson-Marsteller and former CNBC reporter Goldman—and “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.” As for the client's identity, Business Insider wondered if Apple or Microsoft could be involved.