Nothing Sells Like a Scandal: Facebook, Google and the BIG SMEAR

Like most PR people, I’ve been following the “scandal” involving Burson Marsteller PR, Facebook and Google with great interest…and more than a little amusement. I first became aware of it thanks to a breathless AdWeek headline (“Burson Marsteller Reps Caught Spreading Fake Google Stories”) It struck me as an interesting, but relatively minor incident: USA Today reported that it and several others had received and rejected a negative story pitch about Google, made on behalf of an unnamed client by a former journalist now working for the giant PR firm. In a funny, snarky twist, a tech blogger who’d rejected a similar pitch published the (e-mailed) pitch online. Ouch! The fact that the agency guy offered to help him write and place an op-ed made it even more salacious, but the jist of the pitch — which alleged privacy issues with an invisible Gmail feature that gathers personal information — didn’t seem out of line.

Clearly, the agency made a huge mistake by not identifying their client, Facebook, and by not insisting on transparency with them beforehand. And that was just plain stupid. Not only did the lack of transparency make them both look sneaky and underhanded, it also made their pitch less convincing. Hell, if you had an industry heavyweight like Facebook as a client, why hide it? I’ve gotta believe a tech beat reporter or blogger would at least consider an argument from the world’s largest social network. But the same pitch coming from an unnamed client? Smells fishy…and apparently makes for good copy.

That’s where I get skeptical of the media on this one. The pro-Google tone of headlines nationally has been amazing, with many outlets calling it a “Smear Campaign.” I don’t currently work with tech clients, so I can’t claim extensive background here. But, as a daily Google- and Facebook-using “layman,” Google’s Social Circle does seem like it could be a privacy breach.  Is it? I don’t know. But just because Google says it’s not, doesn’t make it so. However, this seemingly relevant question has hardly been examined in any of the coverage; it’s all about the scandal. ‘Cause nothing sells papers (digital or otherwise) like scandal.

Yesterday, I saw a headline in Slate (“Facebook Smeared Google? C’mon!”) that summarized my annoyance with the situation…or so I thought. Although the author, Jack Shafer agrees the whole thing has been ridiculously overblown, he only spends a moment or two castigating his journalist peers. Most of his venom is reserved for the public relations industry, who he disparages in almost comic-book fashion.

“Every reporter knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies,” he snorts. “If they were paid to push the truth, they’d be called reporters.”

Shafer goes on to say most PR campaigns are actually smear campaigns, then muses about political PR and the pitching of “opposition research” stories — which many PR types actually would consider smear campaigns. Oddly enough, Shafer says he “generally supports” these types of stories, as long as the research is handled critically and both sides of the story are heard. Shafer also bemoans the involvement of PR firms in writing and placing opinion editorials, but walks a fine line. Clearly, he is incensed by the Burson guy’s offer to help provide information for the tech blogger’s piece, but he seems to grudgingly accept that the “CEO of Acme, Inc.” probably uses a ghostwriter and speechwriter. Whatever.

I’ve long since come to grips with the fact that PR guys, like lawyers and car salesmen, are rarely portrayed positively by the media. We are a convenient bad guy, straight from Central Casting — the Burson brouhaha will only reinforce that. I’ve also come to grips with the fact that media outlets thrive on scandals, and columnists are required to have brash opinions. So, fine. What I haven’t come to grips with is the hypocrisy of a column skewing the media for sensationalizing a story that uses comically sensational claims about the PR biz to make its point.  But then, what do I know? I’m just another lying, smear-mongering PR guy.