Perhaps you’ve probably heard: Facebook and Google are at war, and Facebook’s not afraid to play dirty. Thursday’s revelation that the social networking site hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to plant a negative story about Google’s privacy settings raises a number of questions, such as “Who at Facebook thought this was a good idea?” The company isn't responding to the question right now.
Until they do, it helps to look at the players involved. There’s Burson-Marsteller, the global PR firm run by CEO Mark Penn. There’s Jim Goldman, the former Silicon Valley bureau chief for CNBC (and frequent target of high school-style ridicule). He’s become the fall guy for Burson-Marsteller. There’s Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s universally praised COO. And then there’s Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s VP of communications and public policy.
Penn, of course, is a Washington heavy hitter. He worked as a pollster to President Clinton during both of his terms, and the Washington Post noted how “thoroughly integrated into the policymaking operation” he’d become. Penn’s also no stranger to criticism from Washington observers. He gained notoriety for missteps as chief strategist to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential bid. He eventually stepped down after feuding with other aides and for reportedly offering Clinton some of her worst advice (like, emphasize Barack Obama’s foreignness).
Penn’s also no stranger to the tech world—he’s credited with making Microsoft into one of the country’s most trusted corporations, thanks to Bill Gates’ “blue sweater” advertisement. (In a strangely prophetic Valleywag article from 2008, Owen Thomas used that success to recommend Mark Zuckerberg become Penn’s next client.)