Facebook’s Failed Privacy PR Campaign Against Google: An Industry Practice, Poorly Done

In a spectacularly failed attempt at undermining the competition, Facebook has admitted that it hired public relations giant Burson-Marsteller to plant news articles promoting a supposed privacy problem with a Google social product.

Up until today, Facebook had usually been on the receiving end of this sort of tactic — its attempt to go on the offensive is most notable for its underhanded ambition and failure. Here’s a quick look at what happened, followed by our analysis.

Journalists-turned-Burson-employees Jim Goldman and John Mercurio approached a number of journalists and privacy advocates in recent weeks, attempting to generate negative coverage of Google social search. In an email exchange with privacy advocate Christopher Soghoian, Mercurio asserted that “Google is collecting, storing and mining millions of people’s personal information from a number of different online services and sharing it without the knowledge, consent or control of the people involved.”

USA Today appears to have almost gone to press with that angle, but was alerted by others and published an exposé of the pitch instead, as well as a strong push back on the claim. “Social Circle in fact allows Gmail users to make social connections based on public information and private connections across its products in ways that don’t skirt privacy,” it wrote, which is pretty true. If you want to take a look for yourself, check out Google’s help materials (and discussion among upset users), or read Search Engine Land‘s excellent dive into it.

Burson refused to disclose the client, until Newsweek’s Dan Lyons gained evidence that singled out Facebook, and got a confirmation out of the company. According to his article, the reasons Facebook did the campaign are as follows: “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.” On the latter issue, Google tried to scrape Facebook user data, then won most of the press to its side when Facebook blocked its attempt. At the time, it appeared as if Google knew how Facebook was going to respond, and fully intended to create a press win.

Which brings us to the next point, which is that Facebook itself has been a target from competitors. After launching the Like button, the Graph API and other web-wide, currently successful efforts to win over users and advertisers at its f8 developer conference in April of 2010, Facebook was within days targeted by high-rankings members of Congress over potential privacy violations. These members of Congress, as we discussed at the time, displayed a poor understanding of the specific issues. It was very odd to see them react so quickly to such a nuanced issued. A well-placed person at another tech company told us at the time that they believed the politicians had been directed to the issue by another company.

Powerful interests are of course always attempting to manipulate the media to their own advantage, often in behind-the-scenes and underhanded ways. Google itself has been a victim of both public and secret (misleading) efforts by Microsoft over the years, sometimes with aid from Burson.

So, what stands out about this case is that Facebook went after Google in such an underhanded way over such a weak claim, and that it failed in its efforts so publicly.

At this point, both Facebook and Burson have tried to backtrack, or at least sideways-track. The latest comments from both companies, below. You’ll note that they contradict each other, as others already have. First, Burson, in an email to PRNewser.

Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.

The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.  Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.

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.

Meanwhile, Facebook tells All Things D that it was intending something more above-board.

“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.”

Regardless of how either party feels about how the effort has been received, both appear to have taken serious brand damage — at least in those circles that care about nasty press battles — and they’ll need to work hard in the coming years to put this behind them.