Facebook smear campaign against Google backfires

13 May 2011

The overall role of public relations in the technology world has been called into question after it emerged Facebook hired a PR company with the intention of planting negative stories about Google in the press.

Burson-Marsteller, a major PR company, had been hired by a mystery client to pitch anti-Google stories to newspapers urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy.

In one case the company offered to help an influential blogger write an opinion piece bashing Google and said that it could place the story on influential websites like The Washington Post, Politico and The Huffington Post.

The dastardly plot began to unravel when the blogger posted Burson Marsteller’s emails online.

The story then got the attention of USA Today. But the identity of the firm that hired Burson-Marsteller was still a mystery until Dan Lyons of the Daily Beast got a Facebook spokesperson to confirm it was behind the nefarious scheme.

Apparently Facebook was chagrined that Google was up to no good in terms of social networking and was doing things that would have compromised privacy. At the heart of the matter is Facebook’s resentment of Google using Facebook data in its own social networking service.

In effect the plot blew up in Facebook’s face. The reality is Facebook will get over this and keep growing and evolving. But for Burson-Marsteller and the role of public relations in the technology world, it’s a long road back.

Tech world’s sad reality distortion field

What is a surprise to most people is why a company of Facebook’s stature would bother engaging in such a tawdry, underhand activity. It’s already winning the online advertising battle in many cases and with only 2,500 staff versus Google’s 26,000 is emerging as a serious rival to Google’s search and display business.

Smear campaigns are nothing new in politics and media and they’re certainly not new in technology. In fact, behind the scenes in the technology world some activities would rival a Cold War spy movie with corporate espionage taking place all the time and battles over patent and code theft leading to real courtroom battles.

But by and large the technology industry fights its battles in public. Key figures like Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer and Larry Ellison openly berate one another’s rival products. Many hire analyst firms to say why their products are better than their rivals and pay serious wad to have their leading products put in some top quadrant.

In most cases PR firms in the technology world are barely sophisticated enough to press ‘send’ on advertisements dressed up as press releases in their hunt for coverage for clients with a bad dose of ego.

But this is the first time a technology giant big enough to know better has been caught with its pants down, deliberately hiring a PR company to plant stories aimed at wounding a rival.

In the US, blogs like TechCrunch have had more choice words to say on the matter.

But the notion of planting stories to belittle a rival shows a flagrant disregard for the integrity of bloggers, the media and ultimately the truth.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years