The mystery over which tech company hired top PR firm Burson-Marsteller to pitch stories about Google invading people's privacy has been solved. And it doesn't look good for Mark Zuckerberg. The Daily Beast's Dan Lyons uncovered that Burson's much speculated-over "unnamed client," who hired the firm to spread a whisper campaign about Google, was none other than Facebook, Google's biggest competitor for online advertising. After seeing the evidence, Facebook's spokesman confirmed Lyons's discovery. Among other tactics, Burson had two former-reporters-turned-PR-flacks, CNBC's Jim Goldman and politics reporter John Mercurio, push USA Today and other papers to publish op-eds and editorials against Google. (An influential blogger even published his email exchange where Mercurio tried to get him to do the same thing.)
Google and Facebook have always had an adversarial relationship — competing to win advertising on the Internet doesn't leave time for small talk. But these "Nixonian" acts of subterfuge were around Google's big push toward social networking (i.e. Facebook territory). Bonuses at Google are now partly contingent on the company's success in social, and it's latest feature, Social Circle, lets Gmail users see information not only about their friends, but also about friends of friends or "secondary connections." The stories they were planting may have been about privacy, but what Facebook's really concerned about is the fact that some of that "secondary connections" info is content scraped from Facebook. Says Lyons:
In other words, 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.
It's hard to be surprised that a company would try to plant negative stories about its competitor. But in the race for social, Facebook always seemed like it had the lead, smirking at the lumbering beast that is Google from the finish line. This tactic shows how scared they are and how bumbling their response is. Though perhaps the more embarrassing thing is that the man-child who tried to usher in the end of privacy thought he could do this without getting caught.
Facebook Busted in Clumsy Smear on Google [Daily Beast]