Facebook flubs Google smear campaign

The Facebook website is displayed on a laptop computer on May 9, 2011 in San Anselmo, Calif.

Kai Ryssdal: You'd suppose Facebook -- of all companies -- would know there's no such thing as privacy on the Internet. I mean -- right?

So what could the social networking site possibly have been thinking when it hired Burson-Marsteller, a big name Washington PR firm, to plant nasty stories about Google and its privacy policies? Marketplace's Steve Henn has that story.


Steve Henn: As any good decent D.C. political operative knows, there are 1,000 ways Facebook could have tried to smear Google without leaving fingerprints. There are PR firms in the capital that do little else than practice what they affectionately call "the dark arts." But this time, Facebook and Burson-Marsteller failed.

Peter Stone: You know, it seems to be a case of inexperience.

Peter Stone is a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity who has covers money and politics.

Stone: I think a skilled company probably would have gone to a non-profit, channeled the money to a front group, if you want to call it that, that doesn't have to disclose its donors.

Then the front group can smear away -- and Facebook hands are clean. Now Stone's not endorsing this kind of behavior. He's just saying gotten pretty common.

I called a handful of folks who practice the dark arts and none would talk on tape because they were either hoping to land Facebook as a client, or already working for a competitor. All that makes Mary Spaeth furious.

Mary Spaeth: It sends the message that that is how public relations and communications specialists behave. And that's just not true.

Spaeth runs her own crisis-communications firm in Dallas. She says in this case, Facebook probably ended up paying a small fortune for some terrible advice.

Spaeth: I think it is never a good idea to try and hide. First of all, it always comes out.

And when it does, it ends up hurting you more than the company you were criticizing.

In Silicon Valley, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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