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article imageFacebook retained PR firm to smear Google on privacy concerns

By Michael Krebs     May 12, 2011 in Business
After an email string surfaced on the Internet from an employee at PR shop Burson-Marsteller looking for a blogger to write an op-ed piece against Google's privacy position, the client behind the push was revealed to be Facebook.
Public relations firm Burson-Marsteller faced considerable scrutiny on Thursday after it was revealed that its staffers were soliciting specific story angles in opposition to Google's privacy practices. Facebook was identified as the client behind the agency's manoeuvrings, according to a report in The Guardian.
The story first came to light after a questionable email string between John Mercurio, vice president at Burson-Marsteller, and Christopher Soghoian, an activist blogger who has focused on privacy and cyber-security concerns, was released on the Internet. The matter was reported in Digital Journal in an op-ed on corporate communications practices, but has since evolved into a case study on the bitter dispute between Facebook and Google and on acceptable methodologies in issue-oriented public relations.
Facebook is now openly seen as secretly paying Burson-Marsteller to enlist journalists to produce stories that position Google in an unfavorable light on consumer privacy issues.
A Facebook spokesperson disputed the smear claim, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
"No 'smear' campaign was authorized or intended," the Facebook spokesperson wrote. "Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles -- just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose. We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way."
Burson-Marsteller approached Washington Post, USA Today and other large-reach and well known titles on the smear campaign. A spokesman for the PR concern characterized the approach as "not at all standard operating procedure" in explanatory comments made to The Guardian. The campaign has since been terminated, and Burson-Marsteller is no longer working with Facebook.
The questionable approach appeared to be spearheaded by former CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman and former political reporter and editor John Mercurio.
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