Facebook unmasked as Burson-Marsteller’s mystery client

A report says the social network hired the PR firm to plant negative stories about Google. A veteran PR pro calls the scenario ‘outrageous.’


Wow! This thing goes all the way to the top—of Silicon Valley.

Facebook is the client that hired Burson-Marsteller to plant negative stories in the press about Google, according to Newsweek technology editor Dan Lyons.

This morning, Lyons reports:

“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.”

Lyons said B-M at first refused to name its client. But when the firm learned that Facebook came clean, Lyons wrote to him confirming Facebook was B-M’s client.

In an email to PR Daily, veteran PR pro Fraser Seitel said: “If this is true, it is outrageous. Both Burson and Facebook should be ashamed of themselves.”

Seitel, who teaches public relations at New York University, has served “of counsel” for Burson over the years. He said he counts Harold Burson, the firm’s co-founder, as a friend.

“Good, solid, substantial firms, like these, should conduct themselves ethically above board,” Seitel said. “If Facebook has problems with Google, then it should have the confidence and decency to express the reasons why, from the mouth of a Facebook executive.

“Sneaking around, conducting negative research, surreptitiously placing anonymous hit pieces, based on one-sided bias, is normally associated with PR bottom feeders in Washington and L.A., not respected firms like Burson.”

Seitel said the fact that the story boomeranged is “predictable.”

“It just reveals that Facebook is scared of Google entering its market—the exact opposite effect that Facebook desired when it hired Burson,” he said.

For those just tuning in, USA Today reported this week that a B-M rep—former CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman—started a “whisper campaign,” trying to compel media outlets to write a story about privacy concerns over Social Circle, a little-known part of Google’s Gmail.

The information Goldman was spreading proved false, USA Today said.

Meanwhile, another B-M rep—former political columnist John Mercurio—tried to persuade blogger Chris Soghoian to write an op-ed on Social Circle, which he said he could land in The Washington Post, Politico, The Huffington Post, and other news outlets.

Soghoian published his email conversation with Mercurio.

The resulting media coverage from the USA Today story and Soghoian’s blog post blew up in B-M’s face, but the company refused to name the client paying for the work.

Lyons compared the work of Goldman and Mercurio to that of the “Keystone Kops” and said:

“The mess, seemingly worthy of a Nixon reelection campaign, is embarrassing for Facebook, which has struggled at times to brand itself as trustworthy. But even more so for Burson-Marsteller, a huge PR firm that has represented lots of blue-chip corporate clients in its 58-year history.”

Rosanna M. Fiske, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, weighed in on the fiasco, pointing out that only 14 of B-M’s 2,200 employees are PRSA members and thereby subject to its code of conduct.

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