Facebook has admitted to secretly hiring public-relations giant Burson-Marsteller to plant negative stories about Google in the press. The PR firm started a "whisper campaign" urging reporters to look into Google's efforts to expand its social-networking presence via a tool called Social Circle. Burson told reporters the tool was "designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users." Facebook claims it just wanted the facts out there and denies it intended to wage a "smear campaign" against Google. So who wins and who loses in this tale that's being called "one part sad, one part fascinating, and 20 parts sleazy"?
Blogger Christopher Soghoian
This affair became a fiasco for Facebook when blogger Soghoian questioned who was paying Burson for its anti-Google pitches. When the PR firm wouldn't reveal its client, Soghoian, a PhD candidate who studies privacy and security issues, posted his email exchange with a Burson rep. Soghoian says he's "quite happy" with the shame that's been heaped upon Facebook. "This scandal couldn't have hit a more deserving company,” he says, as quoted by the Boston Herald.
Soghoian and others who looked into Burson's anti-Google claims found them overblown, but "it doesn't matter anymore," says Michael Arrington at TechCrunch. "The story from now on will only be about how Facebook went about trying to secretly smear Google, and got caught." The search giant looks smart by comparison: "While Google is by no means innocent of handling privacy issues with universal satisfaction, you can believe that it would approach an attack on a rival with more panache!" says Nick Smith in Benzinga.
Techies and business journalists
This incident is just the latest in an "escalating war" between Facebook and Google, says E.B. Boyd in Fast Company, two massive companies that "are beginning to tread on each other's toes." The emerging rivalry will be "fascinating to watch" and to report on. Anyone interested in the future of information technology should "pull up a chair, and get the popcorn ready. Because what we're about to witness will be a true clash of the titans."
The social-networking company "has egg all over its face" and looks "kind of pathetic." Its actions were "offensive, dishonest, and cowardly," says TechCrunch's Arrington. Facebook has, of course, been widely attacked on the privacy front — and it "seems more focused on highlighting another company's shortcomings instead of improving on its own," says Smith at Benzinga. That won't help it win over customers and makes Facebook harder to trust.
Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg
Facebook's 27-year-old CEO and his chief operating officer look "amateurish" for hiring the PR firm and tainting their brand, says Tim Mullaney in USA Today. Now, Facebook's top brass must answer for lacking "the basic judgment" to see that they have "billions of dollars' worth of credibility on the line." Sandberg is often viewed as the "adult supervision" at Facebook, and she, in particular, needs to ensure that "Facebook stays out of the dirty-tricks business."
If Facebook seems "scummy," Burston also comes out of this looking "sleazy," says MG Siegler at TechCrunch. And it didn't have any spare credibility to lose, says Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast. The firm has represented "blue-chip" companies, but it also has had loads of disreputable clients. And its CEO, Mark Penn, came away from a stint as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist in 2008 "identified with hilariously bungling tactical failure," says Tom Scocca at Slate, adding drolly, "If only there were some sort of company out there that knew how to fix a damaged reputation."
This incident "is bad news for users of both services" because it shows that "the relationship between Facebook and Google is unquestionably broken beyond repair," says Jared Newman at PCWorld. The companies, and their products, could stand to benefit if they worked well together, but that's not likely to ever happen.