Busted! Facebook hires PR firm to discredit Google

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)
It has been revealed that social networking giant Facebook hired a PR firm to wage a secret war on Google to smear their privacy policies in an attempt to gain an upper hand.

Both Facebook and Google have been the target of users, advocates and lawmakers regarding their privacy policies and growing online privacy concerns. Facebook opted to attack the other under a microscope as opposed to fixing its own issues.

Dan Lyons of The Daily Beast learned that Facebook hired the well known PR firm Burson-Marsteller with the goal of recruiting bloggers, online news outlets and web users discredit Google.

Burson-Marsteller sent emails and letters to online advocates who support privacy, attempting to enlist their support for the campaign. The firms reached out to Christopher Soghoian, a known online privacy advocate, telling him that if he participated they would guarantee his work would end up in The Washington Post, Politico, The Huffington Post or similar publications.

I wanted to gauge your interest in authoring an op-ed this week for a top-tier media outlet on an important issue that I know you’re following closely. The topic: Google’s sweeping violations of user privacy. Google, as you know, has a well-known history of infringing on the privacy rights of America’s Internet users. Not a year has gone by since the founding of the company where it has not been the focus of front-page news detailing its zealous approach to gathering information – in many cases private and identifiable information – about online users,” Burson-Marsteller wrote in an email to Soghoian.

Soghoian however was suspicious. He wanted to know who was backing the op-ed and who had paid the PR firm for their services.

Burson-Marsteller refused to disclose any information and Soghoian refused to cooperate. Instead he made the correspondence between himself and Burson-Marsteller public.

Upon seeing the email chains posted online The Daily Beast investigated, curious to learn who the client might be – Lyons alleged Facebook was behind the campaign.

It was also later revealed that USA Today, CNBC and other media outlets, after having been approached by Burson-Marsteller, were poised to run a number of stories on Google’s Social Circle features with a focus on privacy violations.

Social Circles is a feature is a new function within Google’s Gmail email client. It gathers information about your contacts based on their email addresses, inviting you to connect with them via social networks.

Following the accusations, Facebook caved.

Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson[-Marsteller], 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,” said The Daily Beast.

While many have expressed concerns over Google’s Social Circles feature and possible privacy issues, Lyons argued Facebook appears less concerned about privacy and more concerned about competition from Google.

A number of online techno-journalism outlets have begun to heavily criticize Facebook.

Secretly paying a PR firm to pitch bloggers on stories going after Google, even offering to help write those stories and then get them published elsewhere, is not just offensive, dishonest and cowardly. It’s also really, really dumb. I have no idea how the Facebook PR team thought that they’d avoid being caught doing this,” wrote TechCrunch, a technology blog run by The Huffington Post Media Group at AOL.

[P]itching ‘scandalous"’ stories about competitors that aren't actually scandalous is a favorite sleazy PR technique. But the fact that this one was coming from Burson Marsteller--a high-end global communications firm--and former CNBC reporter Jim Goldman makes this one noteworthy. Especially because it suggests that some of the groundswell of anti-Google sentiment in Washington may have been driven by secret paid attack-campaigns like this one,” remarked an article on The Business Insider.

One thing is for sure, if Facebook thought it needed a PR firm for positive spin before, it most certainly needs one now.