Somebody probably got fired yesterday. After news broke on Thursday that Facebook was behind the mysterious smear campaign that accused Google of violating users' privacy, cadres of tech journalists, PR professionals and all of their relatives unleashed a torrent of commentary about the event. We'll call it Googlegate. Because then we can cast Mark Zuckerberg as Richard Nixon and imagine Burson-Marsteller's Jim Mercurio and Jim Goldman as Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. Chris Seghoian, the vigilante blogger and privacy advocate who posted the original emails outlining Google's would-be trespasses, he'd be Deep Throat. And since the digging into how it wall went down and who's to blame is just beginning, the entirety of the blogosphere get to be Woodward and Bernstein. Here's what they're saying so far.
Facebook looks down right desperate and hypocritical. The young company struggling to stay small and seem cool as investors wonder if Facebook could be a trillion dollar company comes of a little childish if not pathetic in the face of their biggest competitor. Yesterday, we quoted the Next Web's Paul Sawar who wrote that a company as successful as Facebook doesn't need to do such silly things as sling mud: "It’s normally desperate companies on the decline that get involved in these sort of shenanigans." Gawker's Ryan Tate reminds us that Facebook is in fact desperate to erase their own "well earned reputation for being two faced, greedy and untrustworthy" and adding a fresh dose of hypocrisy is counterproductive:
The idea of attacking Google's reputation is not, on its face, outrageous. Lord knows there are plenty of valid criticisms of the company's privacy practices; we linked just yesterday to a story about some alarming ways the company mines Gmail contacts, and did not need (or get) any prodding from a flack or any other source to do so. But if Facebook wants to raise similar criticisms, it should identify itself when doing so. Just like any common Facebook user must do when posting a humble wall comment.
Burson-Marsteller just reminded everyone of the sleazy side of PR. Slate's Tom Scocca cited Tate's post about Google mining your Gmail contacts suggesting that Facebook's hiring Burson might've even been unnecessary. But Facebook picked the wrong PR company for this seemingly risky assignment. As Scocca points out, Burson has become known for their long list of shady clients:
So Facebook was willing to hire a company whose CEO is identified with hilariously bungling tactical failure. [Among Blackstone and others:] Foxconn, the Chinese tech supply company where the workers were killing themselves last year. Another Burson client.
How will Facebook scrub the stink off itself now? How will Burson-Marsteller, for that matter, get people to stop thinking of poison, corruption, failure, and death when its name comes up? If only there were some sort of company out there that knew how to fix a damaged reputation.
Google looks like a victim to Facebook's cowardly bullying. A number of people have pointed out that if there's a winner in this fight, it's Google. All Google needs to do now is sit down and shut up as Facebook's image spirals down the toilet once again. As TechCrunch's Michael Arrington points out, this scandal makes Google look like the grown up:
Next time Facebook should take a page from Google’s playbook when they want to trash a competitor. Catch them in the act and then go toe to toe with them, slugging it out in person. Right or wrong, no one called Google a coward when they duped Bing earlier this year.
You've lost much face today, Facebook.
Ultimately, both Facebook and Burson just look dumb. It's easy to see that Facebook could've thought through this campaign a bit more, and Burson-Marsteller could've just said no to the young company's request. (They've since admitted they should've.) Dan Lyons, who broke the story that Facebook had ordered the black-ops attack, revisited the story this morning and his intro says it all: "Both sides look like idiots." So what now? Lyons suggests:
I asked Burson's spokesman whether Goldman and Mercurio are still working for the agency. The spokesman's response: "We're not commenting." There's also been speculation that Elliot Schrage, the VP of global communications at Facebook, might fall on his sword. My gut tells me he won't, and that Facebook will do what it always does when it gets into trouble: refuse to apologize, admit no wrongdoing, stop talking and wait for the storm to blow over. If so, that would be the first smart move they've made in this sorry episode.
UPDATE (2:55 PM 5/13/2011): In fact, the senior executives at Burson didn't get fired after all. They're just going to receive a fresh round of training.