05.13.11

The PR Hacks Behind Facebook's Google Smear

The two PR hacks who ran Facebook’s covert anti-Google smear campaign were new to the company, and will not be fired. Dan Lyons on how their clumsy work exposed them, and Facebook’s smug strategy for escaping the controversy.

The two PR hacks who ran Facebook’s covert anti-Google smear campaign were new to the company, and will not be fired. Dan Lyons on how their clumsy work exposed them, and Facebook’s smug strategy for escaping the controversy.

Plus, why the ensuing blame game makes both Facebook and Burson look like idiots.

PR agency Burson-Marsteller, caught up in a scandal for running a covert anti-Google smear campaign on behalf of Facebook, says it will not fire the two PR guys who ran the operation. Instead, Burson says it will give them extra training.

“We have talked through our policies and procedures with each individual involved in the program and made it clear this cannot happen again,” Burson’s USA President Pat Ford told PR Week. (Subcription required).

Ford told PR Week that Burson has a code of ethics and will redistribute it to all employees in the wake of the Facebook smear campaign scandal.

The two PR guys involved are new to Burson and new to PR. They are Jim Goldman, a former tech reporter for CNBC, and John Mercurio, a former political reporter. The pair were pitching anti-Google stories to newspapers, urging them to investigate claims that Google was invading people’s privacy with a tool called Social Circle.

Mercurio even offered to help a blogger write a Google-bashing op-ed, and promised to place the op-ed in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and other publications.

Instead, the blogger turned the tables on Burson, posting Mercurio’s embarrassing email pitch online. A few days later, USA Today broke a story saying Goldman had been trying to sell that newspaper on the same sleazy pitch. Nobody knew who had hired Burson to do this dirty work, and the agency wouldn’t say. Fingers pointed at Apple and Microsoft. But on Wednesday, The Daily Beast revealed that the client was Facebook.

PR people in Silicon Valley said they weren’t surprised to see Facebook spreading negative information about Google. But they were shocked—and delighted—by how clumsy the Burson guys were.

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.

Burson put out a statement Thursday blaming the whole mess on Facebook. The statement said Facebook insisted on being kept anonymous, and that Burson should not have gone along with that request.

Questions remain, however. For example, who at Facebook initiated the campaign? Did Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, know about it, and if so, when? Was it his idea?

Nobody at Facebook will talk. Their idea seems to be to just brazen it out, and hope the storm blows over. Sadly, that will probably work.

Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.