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Attack on the flacks

What’s bigger than Google and Facebook? How about the headlines generated by last week’s “revelation” that Burson-Marsteller, working on behalf of Facebook was trying to generate negative publicity about Google’s privacy policies. Burson reportedly approached reporters at USA Today and privacy advocates without disclosing that the party behind the pitch was Facebook. Release the hounds! The media jumped all over this “story” and the resulting coverage was pretty much universal, online and in print.

Am I missing something here? Is it any surprise to supposedly savvy journalists that companies view the media as another tool to be used to get a leg up on competitors? You would think so from following this incident. The fact is that companies routinely plant negative information about competitors with journalists. The more technical the subject matter the greater the opportunity for companies or their PR agencies to call into question merits of a competitor’s product, service, or business practices.  It happens all the time and no one should be more aware than journalists who are in the middle of PR wars.

The tactics of the campaign clearly stunk. However, it is more interesting to me to study Burson’s response once it was confronted. First, it allowed the identity of its client to be disclosed. Why? Second, it admitted wrong doing saying that “…this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined.”   That’s not my kind of PR firm.  There is nothing wrong with “unbranded” advocacy.  It is part of the game and we in the business of selling ideas should not apologize for it.

Why would Facebook even go down this road?  Business Insider might be onto something when they write how Google is skimming information from Facebook to help improve its search results.

As for the journalists and privacy researchers who disclosed their conversations with Burson and set off this dust up who were holier than thou when the the opportunity to stick it to a PR firm arose, why don’t you disclose how you get all your story/research ideas?  In every story tell us whether it was from a news release, from a pitch from an agency, or if you are doing the story simply to help get future access to corporate sources.  Yeah right.

ProPublica suggests that now that PR people outnumber journalists, “private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, and to do so without the public knowing it.”  I don’t agree, but the argument shows that we are in a vibrant, competitive marketplace for ideas, brands, and visibility in an increasingly cluttered media landscape.  The media needs to own up to their mission and work harder when they detect they are being manipulated.  Next time, please spare us the crocodile tears (or at least keep them behind the pay wall).

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