Facebook’s PR Smear Campaign Against Google

Posted: May 12, 2011 in Advertising, Marketing, Media, Politics, Search, Social Media, Technology
Tags: , , ,

Ooohhh ho ho! This one is good. Really, really good, people.

We interrupt our analysis of the 2011 Global information technology Report to give you news about some gossipy, tech rivalry backstabbing.

What do you get when you take one of the biggest powerhouse PR firms in the world and plug it in between two of the most influential global technology companies? Modern info wars, people. Modern information warfare!

As Dan Lyons wrote in his Daily Beast report on this, for the last week or so word got out that Burson-Marsteller had been retained to pitch an anti-Google PR campaign that urged credible news outlets to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy.

Word got out because Burson “offered to help an influential blogger write a Google-bashing op-ed, which it promised it could place in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post.” The offer, it appears, was turned down by blogger Chris Soghoian who then publicized the emails BM sent him after they refused to reveal their patron.

Next, “USA Today broke a story accusing Burson of spreading a ‘whisper campaign’ about Google ‘on behalf of an unnamed client'” and after that, Facebook, it was revealed, was the crooked, Whispering Wizard behind the curtain.

This is the kind of stuff that makes comms geeks like me drool! PR, search and social networking combined in one story?

So let’s break down the elements that make this so juicy. First, for Facebook to be accusing anyone else of being flippant or irresponsible about user privacy is ridiculous. Plain ridiculous. When your founder and CEO is Mr. “Privacy is Dead,” you cannot take that position. Period.

Second, it’s so interesting to see Facebook getting upset about Google doing what it was invented to do, i.e. cull information from every relevant source on the net and organize it in a meaningful way to those searching for it. For Facebook to think that it would be immune to the reach of the Google information engine’s grasp is delusional. In essence, the crux of Facebook’s whole problem with this situation lies herein: “just as Google built Google News by taking content created by hundreds of newspapers and repackaging it, so now Google aims to build a social-networking business by using that rich user data that Facebook has gathered.”

Third, I love how Lyons cuts through all of that and gets down to the brass tacks: “The clash between Google and Facebook represents one of the biggest battles of the Internet Age. Basically, the companies are vying to see who will grab the lion’s share of online advertising.” Yup.

He continues, “Facebook has 600 million members and gathers information on who those people are, who their friends are, and what they like. That data let Facebook sell targeted advertising. It also makes Facebook a huge rival to Google.” There I actually don’t agree with him, because of what I see as their divergent relative scopes.

Although Facebook has done a remarkable job of positioning itself as a competitor to Google in the eyes of the internet public, it’s just not remotely possible. It is a David and Goliath story, where Goliath wins hands down, and then, laughing about squishing little David, goes outside to have a margarita in the sun.

Facebook’s scope started out much too small to then later tack and take on the search giant. Facebook wanted to provide an exclusive network online where people could share information about themselves with other people. Google began as a creature that wanted to dominate the world and all of its information, and has proven how badly by successfully venturing into myriad other arenas. Google aims to “organize the world’s information,” whereas Facebook’s stated goal is to…wait, what is Facebook’s stated goal? A cursory search came up with this article from the Observer about Facebook’s mission statement, which apparently started as “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life,” and has now, rather tellingly, become “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Interesting.

But back to the matter at hand- there’s no doubt that Google has performed so well in other arenas that they are well positioned now to really take on the social angle. And as Lyons points out, they have already begun, “Last month, Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page sent out a memo telling everyone at Google that social networking was a top priority for Google—so much so that 25 percent of every Googler’s bonus this year will be based on how well Google does in social.” That may be the first sound of the bugle in Google’s hunt for Facebook’s market share that should play out over the course of the next few years. But if this was Facebook’s “shot across the bow” in that race, then it has made them look, well, ridiculous.

Fourth, I find it interesting how Facebook took down some of Burson-Marsteller’s credibility with it. In politics, usually when a smear campaign is run, the focus of criticism for having done so falls largely upon the candidate himself or herself- and discussions generally center on their morals or ethics for having chosen to go that route. Occasionally the blame falls on the chief campaign manager for having persuaded them to do so, but generally not. In this case BM seems to have taken a lot of the heat for attempting to carry out orders under a condition of anonymity.

This political angle begs a few questions. Namely, in an era when civic engagement is diminishing by the minute for a largely apathetic American audience, are huge corporations fighting the new political battles for our attention? It’s safe to say that large technology corporations such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook are much more relevant and identifiable to your average American than would be the 2008 class of Presidential candidates. With this new era of political and business landscapes converging, will the political and business practices of smear tactics converge as well?

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