Facebook has apparently stooped to a new low, as the company has admitted to secretly hiring a well-known PR firm to feed negative stories about Google to the press, the Daily Beast reports.
The move was a clumsy attempt by Facebook to convince reporters that Google’s Social Circle feature (now part of its Social Search) is a gross privacy violation against users. But now that it’s been caught red-handed, Facebook ends up looking far slimier in the process. In Internet speak, we would call this a major “PR fail.”
Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to seed the anti-Google stories, but clearly the company wasn’t being very delicate about its dealings. Blogger Chris Soghoian ended up publishing his email exchange with the firm, in which Burson offered to help write an anti-Google opinion piece. Then USA Today outed the firm’s campaign two days ago, pointing out that it and other outlets were being pushed to write stories about Social Circle’s privacy concerns. Two Burson PR reps, Jim Goldman and John Mercurio, both former reporters, appeared to be the brains behind the campaign (or at least, the ones doing all the work).
A Facebook spokesman later revealed to the Daily Beast that it was behind the campaign, saying that the company was concerned about the privacy concerns raised by Google’s social networking push, and also that the company resents Google using Facebook data in Social Circle.
It’s strange that Facebook would go after Social Circle, a fairly obscure feature that launched back in 2009. The feature let Gmail users see publicly available social networking information from their friends, as well as friends of friends. Burson characterized the feature in its pitch as something “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.”
However you look at this situation, it ends up being a disaster for Facebook. At best, the company may have had no idea what sort of campaign Burson was pursuing — but that seems unlikely. The comments from the Facebook spokesman indicate that the company wanted some sort of retribution, so it’s going to have a hard time explaining otherwise. It’s also worth noting that the move comes only a month after returning Google CEO Larry Page began a major push to make Google a social networking titan.