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PR Pro's Guide to the Burson-Facebook Scandal, Whisper-Gate

In this special edition of Picks of the Week, we provide a full recap of the Burson-Marsteller/Facebook debacle, including what it means for the PR industry, and what to expect in the future from these two tech giants battling to rule the online world.

So Here’s the Scoop...

Last Monday, USA Today reported that Burson-Marsteller (B-M), a major PR firm, was pitching reporters stories about Google’s Social Circle, a tool that allows Gmail users to connect with friends of friends. B-M was spinning the tool as infringing on people's privacy, on behalf of a client the agency wouldn’t name.

Early Thursday, The Daily BeastsDan Lyons (technology editor at Newsweek, and of Fake Steve Jobs fame, as if the guy couldn’t get any cooler) revealed that the client in question was Facebook. The social network had hired B-M to launch a smear campaign against Google because “it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns…. [and] resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.”

For a deep dive into Facebook’s claims, see Danny Sullivan’s article, Examining Facebook’s “Smear Campaign” Concerns About Google Social Circles.

Media Response kid-faceplam

With the cat out of the bag, tech media were up in arms about the unethical practices of both Facebook and B-M. Some examples:

Said Wired’s Sam Gustin: In the annals of shady public relations stunts, Facebook’s attempt to surreptitiously plant negative — and highly misleading — stories about Google into leading media outlets will surely go down as one of the most ham-handed in recent memory.” (Source)

Jack Shafer of Slate simply felt that the world was making too big a deal out of a public relations firm’s stupidity.”

Tech Crunch’s MG Sigler shared passionate responses to the less-than-satisfactory statements of both B-M and Facebook after their release. Simply reading the titles and URLs of these articles — though they may be met with a chuckle — helps one to realize just how disgusted Sigler was by the ordeal. (Plus, he doesn’t usually swear this much.) 

Lyons continued his coverage to out the “PR Hacks Behind Facebook’s Google Smear” — former journalists new to the firm — and reported that they wouldn’t be fired for their actions. (Rather, B-M has shared that it will retrain its staff.) Says Lyons: PR people in Silicon Valley said they weren’t surprised to see Facebook trying to spread negative information about Google, a top rival. But they were shocked—and, truth be told, more than a little delighted—by how clumsy the Burson guys were.”

What Does this Mean for PR?

The entire incident further drags down PR’s standing in our new media world, due to these blatant missteps by the irrelevant aristocracy.

In addition to the poor choice of taking the job, and refusing to name its client when asked by the media reps they pitched (going against the PRSA Code of Ethics) “more surprising to industry observers [was] that Burson would publicly blame its client—not a very good strategy to keep or solicit other clients,” as Lyons pointed out.

Meanwhile, Burson’s Facebook Page is still getting blasted, and the company isn’t responding. (Except for at least one incidence of deleting a post on its wall about the mess.)

According to David Rosen, director of corporate-financial communications practice at B-M, QUESTIONS posted to the Facebook page will be answered by “higher-ups.” Funny side note, though, this message is posted on Rosen’s personal blog, which clearly states: Opinions expressed are my own and don't necessarily represent those of my employer.”

So much for crisis communications.

For lessons PR pros should learn from the ordeal, see Gil Rudawsky’s, Why all of PR Will Pay for ‘Whisper-Gate.’

What’s Next for Facebook and Google?

Though very different on the surface, both Google and Facebook rely on social data for continuous improvement of their platforms. Dan Taylor provides a great synopsis of this in his The Next Web article, How and Why Google is Taking on Facebook.

The battle is also at the heart of the previously mentioned Search Engine Land article by Sullivan, digging into Facebook’s claims about Social Circles — namely, where it gets its data, and what it does with it.

The general consensus is that this isn’t the end of the Facebook-Google Wars. As E.B. Boyd summed up quite well in her article for Fast Company:

“In the months and years ahead, we will likely see more and more such philosophical attacks lobbed to and fro… But part of what will be motivating the behavior of each company--and their attacks--won’t only be commonplace mudslinging between competitors. Rather, there will also be a fair dollop on each side of genuine indignation and outrage. That’s because neither Facebook nor Google is a run-of-the-mill company. Both are organizations genuinely consumed with a sense of higher purpose.”

What are your thoughts on “Whisper Gate”? Is PR’s reputation officially ruined? Comments are yours.

Laurel Miltner is the assistant vice president at PR 20/20, a Cleveland-based inbound marketing agency and PR firm. Follow Laurel on Twitter @laurelmackenzie, or connect on Facebook at Facebook.com/laurelmiltner.

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