by Tim Mullaney
May 12, 2011
Facebook has released this statement about the campaign aimed at Google's Social Circle feature:
No 'smear' campaign was authorized or intended. 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.
You and your readers can look at the feature and decide if they have approved of this collection and use of information by clicking here when their Google account is open: http://www.google.com/s2/search/social. Of course, people who do not have Gmail accounts are still included in this collection but they have no way to view or control it.
Update by Brett Molina, USA TODAY at 12:22 p.m. ET: The PR firm behind a negative campaign against Google's Social Circle feature has confirmed it was working on behalf of social-networking giant Facebook.
In a statement released Thursday, Burson-Marsteller backed away from the campaign, saying it went against the firm's policies and "should have been declined."
Here's the complete statement from Burson:
"Now that Facebook has come forward, we can confirm that we undertook an assignment for that client.
"The client requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light and such information could then be independently and easily replicated by any media. Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources.
"Whatever the rationale, this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined. When talking to the media, we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients, and this incident underscores the absolute importance of that principle."
Our original post
Sheryl Sandberg is supposed to be the "adult supervision" at Facebook, the 41-year-old veteran executive brought in from Google as chief operating officer in 2008 to keep a company led by Mark Zuckerberg (who turns 27 on Saturday) organized and professional even as it zooms to an estimated $4 billion-plus in sales this year. I know this because it says so in the cover story of this week's Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
How, then, to explain the Facebook stunt The Daily Beast's Dan Lyons broke today? Facebook hired public-relations agency Burson-Marsteller to plant negative stories about a social-networking plan of Google 's called Social Circle, contending that it violated user privacy and may have broken federal regulations.
USA TODAY's Byron Acohido and Jon Swartz evaluated the claims and found many of them false, in a story that apparently sent Lyons hunting for Burson's anonymous client.
Now the story is popping out all over technology blogs and the mainstream press, with everyone clamoring to see the battle between Silicon Valley's old (Google was founded in 1998) and new (Facebook is about 7 years old) beasts.
At a minimum, hiring Burson to pitch reporters on a controversy about Google without disclosing they were working for Facebook is amateurish. Many news organizations would have dismissed the pitch for that reason alone, reasoning that no one from Burson could be quoted without disclosing their interest and that reporters couldn't know what Burson's real motives were. That the pitch was apparently based on bogus information and/or shoddy legal analysis only makes things that much worse.
The real question, though, is this: If true, by what standard does this episode show any sign of adult supervision?
The stakes are real and, yes, it's a matter Facebook's top brass must answer for. This stunt messes with Facebook's brand, and the brand is the company. Unlike Google, whose search engine was a giant technical advance over what came before, Facebook attracted 500 million users primarily because it held itself out as more approachable and normal-people-friendly than its onetime rival Myspace.
People who post on Facebook use their real names, and generally behave like normal human beings. There's no porn, few if any predators. That brand is reportedly on track to generate $4 billion or more in advertising revenue this year, and has sparked speculation that Facebook might be worth $100 billion when it goes public, which is expected to happen by next year.
So this is not just an inside media issue. It's a question of management, and of who at Facebook lacked the basic judgment to understand that the blue-chip industry leader the company has become must be better and more honest than this with billions of dollars' worth of credibility on the line.
There's a lot we don't know about what happened here -- and it's Sandberg's job more than anyone's to dig out the truth, quickly. Who at Facebook had this brilliant idea? Why did they ask that Burson go anonymous, or to position itself in talks with journalists as acting in the interest of consumers or the common good, rather than just disclose that Facebook had a beef with Google? What were the specific factual problems with Burson's pitch, and was any disinformation deliberate? Why did they target the outlets they did, and were they hunting for a soft target that would peddle their claims without examining them much? (Why, for example, not just hand it to BusinessWeek's Brad Stone, who was working on the cover?) Did anyone think about the costs and benefits of making themselves look like fools over a perceived threat from a year-old Google product that most people have never even heard of?
Most of all, what did the adult supervisor in the room know, and when did she know it? And if she didn't, why not?
It's too soon to know whether any heads should roll over this. After all, Google survived some of Sergey Brin's brasher, more inappropriate public comments before its IPO and did just fine. Sandberg still has a chance to fix this by telling the truth and taking steps to assure Facebook stays out of the dirty-tricks business.
But fix it she must. Management involves convincing big corporations like Facebook to act professionally, which includes telling the truth.
As BusinessWeek told us this morning, that is Sandberg's job description. Until there's a reason to say otherwise, the buck stops with her.