Mark Zuckerberg‘s Facebook admitted it had hired a public relations firm to highlight supposed flaws in Google Inc‘s privacy practices but denied it had intended a smear campaign against the search giant and tapped a major public relations firm to plant negative stories about archrival Google‘s competing services, the social-networking giant acknowledged after being effectively caught red-handed by an online news site.The episode highlights the increasing friction between two of the most prominent companies in Silicon Valley as they battle over talent, acquisition targets and now public perception. It also underscores the growing importance of strategic communications in the competitive arsenal for information companies, whose success depends on winning the trust of users.But largely, it’s an embarrassing backfire for Facebook, as the clumsy PR stunt has grabbed attention instead of the issue the company was hoping to spotlight.“This allows Google to appear to be the good guys and Facebook the bad guys,” said Carl Howe, analyst with the Yankee Group.
The plan began to unravel after Soghoian posted the pitch online, revealing that Burson had offered to help write and place an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Politico and elsewhere. USA Today followed up with a story suggesting the firm was engaged in a “whisper campaign” to spread negative news about Google and concluded that the claims were “largely untrue.”The mystery remained about which client was behind the PR effort until the Daily Beast reported that Facebook, when confronted with evidence, had fessed up.Google has increasingly been weaving social features into its services, notably adding “social search results” that include things like the public Twitter updates from a person’s connections that might be relevant to a given query. Google pays Twitter for that information feed.The initial pitch from Burson claimed that Google is also scraping data from sites like Facebook, MySpace and Yahoo and revealing secondary connections – say, the friends of your friends – without the permission of user. Google didn’t respond to inquiries from The Chronicle.
Facebook has been on the receiving end of plenty of privacy criticism itself for, among other things, increasing the amount of information that is accessible without asking permission from members.The fact that one tech company was pitching negative stories about another comes as little surprise to many journalists, but for the general public, it sheds a glaring and unflattering light on how parts of the industry operate. Big-league public relations is often a bare-knuckle affair, focused as much on bashing rivals as lauding oneself or clients.Different companies operate according to different standards, but it’s not uncommon for major businesses to attempt to draw the eyes of journalists to the questionable practices of rivals, by highlighting issues they might not have noticed or sharing damning documents.“It is a staple of the political and public relations world to not only tell the attributes of your own client, but to voice the demerits of one’s opposition,” said Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates Inc., a crisis PR firm in San Francisco.The major reason this incident became big news is that Burson didn’t disclose the client it was working for, a violation of standard industry practice, he said. The ethics policies of the Public Relations Society of America state that members shall: “Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.”