May 13th, 2011 by Lloyd Gofton
Today maybe Friday 13th, but yesterday marked the realisation of a nightmare scenario for Facebook, when news broke that it had hired a PR agency to plant negative stories about its big rival Google.
The stories specifically related to a privacy issue surrounding the Google Social Circle tool, which allows Gmail users to see information about their friends and friends of friends.
Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast broke the story yesterday (May 12th), and it has been growing ever since. If you’re not familiar with Lyons, he spent 10 years at Forbes and is now technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs.
He confirmed: “For the past few days, a mystery has been unfolding in Silicon Valley. Somebody, it seems, hired Burson-Marsteller, a top public-relations firm, to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers, urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy. Burson even offered to help an influential blogger write a Google-bashing op-ed, which it promised it could place in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post.
“The plot backfired when the blogger turned down Burson’s offer and posted the emails that Burson had sent him. It got worse when USA Today broke a story accusing Burson of spreading a “whisper campaign” about Google “on behalf of an unnamed client.” See the emails here which included this pitch from Burson: “The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day-without their permission.”
The Daily Beast story confirmed the client was Facebook, and Burson-Marsteller was seeding the story that Google Social Circle was “designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users-in a direct and flagrant violation of Google’s agreement with the FTC.”
Facebook has since admitted it, citing two reasons: “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.”
Let’s leave to one side claims of data ownership from Facebook, and focus on what exactly Facebook was trying to achieve.
If the key objective of the campaign was to spread anti-Google stories and highlight that Google was violating user privacy, surely the campaign has in fact achieved exactly the opposite.
I would also have hoped that these sorts of tactics, which certainly go on, would not have been necessary for such a young and progressive organisation that should have learnt from mistakes of corporate comms of a by-gone era.
Even if we remove the ethical issue for a moment, the alarm bells should still have been ringing when this campaign was discussed. Whether this idea originated from Facebook or the agency, the potential negatives vastly outweigh the potential positives, and someone must have said ‘what if this gets out?’ After all, in the socially-connected world we live in, it was always going to be a big possibility.
As Facebook wakes up to its Friday 13th PR nightmare, and the ongoing fallout, what does this mean for the rest of us? Is it an insight into the long-brewing hostilities between the two biggest boys on the digital block? Is it a pre-emptive strike by Facebook as it knows Google is focused on the social networking space? Is Facebook right in its accusations?
The truth is none of these points really matter in the near future as Facebook has managed to put the negative spotlight on itself and destroy any platform it may have been trying to build by approaching a delicate issue with a poorly judged bully-boy tactic.
I’m sure Google isn’t totally innocent, but by making the first public move, Facebook has given itself a mountain to climb.
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