Next time you find yourself thinking that Facebook is infallible, consider this tale of skullduggery and ineptitude emanating from the social networking giant's juvenile dislike of Google.
For the past week or so, some flacks from Burson-Marsteller -- that's one of the biggest PR firms in the world, which counts Microsoft among its longtime clients -- have been trying to plant negative stories in the news media about Google and its continued flagrant violations of privacy rights.
USA Today ran an article about the "whisper" campaign, but the PR firm kept quiet about the unnamed client that had requested the orchestrated Google smear.
But early Thursday morning, Dan Lyons outed the Burson client in his Daily Beast column:
While fingers pointed at Apple and Microsoft, The Daily Beast discovered that it's a company nobody suspected—Facebook.Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: First, because it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.
The plot began unraveling after Burson flack John Mercurio, a former political reporter who recently joined the PR firm, pitched blogger Chris Soghoian about writing an op-ed regarding "Google’s sweeping violations of user privacy."
"I’m happy to help place the op-ed and assist in the drafting, if needed," Mercurio wrote Soghoian. "For media targets, I was thinking about the Washington Post, Politico, The Hill, Roll Call or the Huffington Post."
Mercurio virtually wrote the op-ed in his pitch email to Soghoian. Some excerpts:
Recently, Google quietly introduced its latest attempt to enter the social space with a new feature called Google Social Circles. The idea behind the feature is to scrape and mine social sites from around the web to make connections between people that wouldn’t otherwise exists and share that information with people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. All of this happens without the knowledge, consent or control of the people whose information is being shared.
And just in case Soghoian didn't get the point, Mercurio makes it clear:
The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day– without their permission.
Alarming, to be sure, but Soghoian certainly wasn't going to be BM's beard without knowing more, so he asked Mercurio via email who was paying for the campaign. The reply: "I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet. But all the information included in this email is publicly available. Any interest in pursuing this?"
Turns out Soghoian was interested in "pursuing this," but not in the way Mercurio expected. The blogger posted the entire May 3 email exchange on the Internet (a brilliant move, if you ask me).
Meanwhile, Jim Goldman, a former CNBC reporter who also just joined BM, pitched the Google privacy story hard to USA Today, then, according to the newspaper, ran for cover when his "pitch proved largely untrue," declining further comment.
Then Lyons figured out that Facebook was behind the entire bumbling effort, and that's where we are today.
This incident changes nothing -- no laws were broken -- other than it now makes Facebook "no longer seem so invincible," as Lyons puts it. I'll go a step further: It makes Facebook and its top executives (at least the ones involved in green-lighting this fiasco) seem impulsive and irrational. If I were a rival, I'd be taking notes.