Last week, PR firm Burson-Marsteller started to plant negative stories about Google. The company was pitching anti-Google stories to newspapers, urging them to investigate claims that the search giant was invading people's privacy. Burson even offered to help an influential blogger write a Google-bashing opinion editorial, which it promised it could place in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post. The blogger turned down Burson's offer and posted the emails that Burson had sent him.
Earlier this week, the USA Today broke the story and accused Burson-Marsteller of spreading a "whisper campaign" about Google "on behalf of an unnamed client." Specifically, the newspaper said the PR firm had contacted a variety of news outlets pushing a story about how Google's "Social Circle" Gmail feature violates users' privacy.
Today, The Daily Beast unearthed that the client was not one of the usual suspects (Apple or Microsoft). The website found it was Facebook, and decided it was going to bust the social network for the "clumsy smear" on Google. Facebook confirmed it was funding the initiative for two reasons: because it believes Google is doing things in social networking that raise privacy concerns and because it resents Google's attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.
Why didn't Facebook merely post this information publicly? The company chose to go to a third party on purpose. The Financial Times decided to find out.
"The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media," a Burson-Marsteller said in a statement. "Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources. 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."
I contacted Facebook myself to hear their defense.
"No 'smear' campaign was authorized or intended," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles—just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose. 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. You and your readers can look at the feature and decide if they have approved of this collection and use of information by clicking here when their Google account is open: http://www.google.com/s2/search/social. Of course, people who do not have Gmail accounts are still included in this collection but they have no way to view or control it."
In short, this is yet another battle in the Google-Facebook war. It's not the first one and certainly will not be the last. The only thing that is clear is that Facebook's plan backfired pretty badly.