Facebook Inc. hired public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to enlist reporters to write stories that would portray its rival Google Inc. in an unfavorable light, according to the firm and a journalist whom it approached.
Burson-Marsteller was asked by Facebook, the world’s most popular social-networking service, to help shed light on “publicly available information” about another company, the PR firm said in a statement. Facebook asked that its name not be disclosed, Burson-Marsteller said. Blogger Chris Soghoian said the company asked him to write about a product called Google Social Circles, exploring whether it violates user privacy.
Facebook and Google compete for Web users in a U.S. online advertising market that’s projected by EMarketer Inc. to grow 11 percent to $28.5 billion in 2011. As regulators and consumer groups probe Internet companies’ use of private data, Facebook’s recruitment of the PR firm and its request for anonymity may have been aimed at deflecting scrutiny toward a rival.
“It’s pretty sleazy on the part of the PR firm and it’s pretty naive on the part of Facebook,” said Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. “It’s kind of a low blow.”
Soghoian said he declined to pursue the story and instead posted the firm’s request on the Internet.
“I don’t think it’s normal for PR companies not to tell people who they’re pitching for,” said Soghoian, who blogs about online privacy and formerly worked at the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. “I immediately replied with, ‘Who’s paying you?’ and they replied back saying, ‘We can’t tell you.’ That’s strange.”
In the e-mail, John Mercurio, a media practice director at Burson-Marsteller, alleged that “Google is collecting, storing and mining” personal information and sharing it without the people’s knowledge.
Burson-Marsteller, based in New York, said in a statement that Facebook asked that its name be withheld “on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media.”
The firm also said withholding the client’s name isn’t standard operating procedure and “against our policies.”
Facebook, based in Palo Alto, California, said it should have presented the issues in a “serious and transparent way.”
“No ‘smear’ campaign was authorized or intended,” the company said in a statement. Facebook retained Burson-Marsteller to focus on an issue “using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst.”