Facebook copped this week to hiring public relations firm Burson-Marsteller in what turned out to be a failed attempt to encourage the press to write about supposed privacy issues with Google applications, causing a wave of mea culpas to sweep over the industry.
As summarized by the Boston Herald, which took some hometown pride in the fact that the story was originally broken by a Harvard University researcher, the sordid little affair all started May 3 when Burson-Marsteller PR rep John Mercurio emailed a pitch to tech blogger Christopher Soghoian, offering to ghost-write an op-ed accusing Google of violating users’ privacy with the Social Circle feature in Gmail, and then place it in a leading publication, such as USA Today. When Mercurio refused to disclose the name of his client, Soghoian took the incident to Twitter, causing consternation.
From there, the Daily Beast got a Facebook representative to admit this week that it was behind the whole sorry mess.
Sinners at the Hands of an Angry Press
We know it's a sorry mess, because everyone is sorry. Facebook is sorry that it wasn't more open about its concerns about Google, because, after all, it only has users' interests at heart:
We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way."
Burson-Marsteller is sorry because it shouldn't have accepted an anonymous client:
Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle."
Google, on the other hand, following the rule "If your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, stay out of his way," most carefully kept quiet during this whole exchange. Said Chris Gaither, Google's senior manager of global communications and public affairs, in USA Today -- which took personally the notion that it could be played in this way:
We have seen this email reportedly sent by a representative of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. We're not going to comment further."
Of Course You Realize, This Means War
Facebook and Google have been knocking heads for months now, with Facebook hiring Google employees, Google changing its terms of service to exclude Facebook and in general not playing nicely with each other. This incident, however, seemed to indicate a step up in hostilities.
On the other hand, some reporters are suggesting that the media is being disingenuous with its outrage, proclaiming, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, that it is "shocked! shocked!" to find that vendors attempt to plant stories in the media about their competition. Writes Andrew Orlowski in the Register UK:
"This is being seen as a pretty underhand tactic," said Rory Cellan Jones at the BBC.
No, Rory. What on earth do people think Public Relations companies actually do? Knit cardigans for orphans up in the Afghan mountains? Train muscular teams of emergency workers, to hand lift people out of rubble when there's an earthquake?"
Meanwhile, chalk one up for Google in the battle for the hearts and minds.