Connecting the Dots on Facebook’s Smear Campaign

Who actually gave Burson-Marsteller the go-ahead?

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.)


Sandberg is also a former Washington insider, having worked in the Clinton Administration at the same time as Penn—from 1996 to 2001, when she was Chief of Staff for Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. Sandberg wound up at Google, where she met Elliot Schrage.

Schrage, Google’s head of PR, followed Sandberg to Facebook and also has connections to the New York-Washington power grid, having worked at the Council on Foreign Relations before his migration to Silicon Valley. The two have been called the “grown-ups” at Facebook, although this isn't the first big PR misstep on their watch; they’ve also been accused by gossips of having political aspirations beyond Facebook

Last time Facebook caused this kind of upset, it was over its own issues with privacy, and it was Schrage who was forced to apologize on behalf of the company; this time, no one seems sorry. Facebook and Burson-Marsteller have each made statements confirming the campaign. While Burson-Marsteller expressed regret, and essentially blamed Jim Goldman, Facebook didn’t bother to apologize. Instead, it's been distributing this statement to the media:

"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: 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."