A pair of trophies, please, for USA Today and the Daily Beast for their parts in breaking the story about how Facebook hired public-relations giant Burson-Marsteller to spread dirt about its rival Google. You can never know too much about the pains corporations take to shape the news—or about what a pliant vessel they assume the press to be.
But as someone whose regard for the public-relations industry could not descend beneath the subbasement it currently occupies unless I used nitroglycerine to erase some troublesome bedrock, I find nothing surprising, shocking, or offensive in what Burson-Marsteller did in attacking Google.
Among the accusations leveled in the press against Burson-Marsteller is that the firm was conducting a "whisper campaign" to persuade media outlets to print stories and editorials about how a Google Gmail feature violated the privacy of millions. Burson-Marsteller appears to have also offered to ghost an op-ed for blogger Christopher Soghoian about the feature and pledged assistance in placing the piece in the Washington Post, Politico, the Hill, Roll Call, or the Huffington Post but wasn't forthcoming about which client it was serving.
The Daily Beast headline—but not the copy—calls the Burson-Marsteller campaign a "smear," a theme that other outlets repeated (sometimes in quotation marks), such as the New York Times, Michael Arrington in TechCrunch, Adweek, Engadget, the Guardian, Forbes, PCWorld, Fortune, Search Engine Land, the Financial Times, and other venues. Yet I can't get very outraged by Facebook hiring a PR firm that was encouraging the press to investigate "publicly available" information they say reveals privacy defects in a competitor's product.
In a perfect world, PR firms should always identify their client whenever whispering or speaking loudly, so five demerits and three days of timeout for Burson-Marsteller. But reporters are not innocent, naïve, delicate flowers. Every reporter approached by PR firms knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies. If PR people were being paid to push the truth, they'd be called reporters.
Not to get reductionist on you, but most PR campaigns are "smear campaigns" if the definition of a smear campaign is to spread untruths or half-truths or other deceits in an organized fashion. It's up to reporters to scrutinize the details tossed to them by flacks at the behest of a client. If reporters don't scrutinize the details, they're villains. If flacks push half-truths, they're just earning their paycheck. In the Burson-Marsteller fiasco, it appears that the firm found no takers for its claims against Google, which speaks as well of the reporters approached as it speaks poorly of Burson-Marsteller.
Politicians routinely hire opposition-research specialists to dig up dirt on the foes they want to damage, and nobody bats an eye. The oppo-research guys then pitch stories to political journalists based on that research, and nobody bats an eye, even when they ask to remain anonymous. I generally support the idea of news stories based on oppo-research as long as the information is handled critically by journalists and verified by the publication as true and the target of the oppo-research gets a chance to reply. Obviously, it's wonderful when media outlets footnote their stories to credit the source of their tips to opposition research. But it's also a little redundant—it's not like a candidate's supporters are out there digging up and dishing ancient dirt on him.
Burson-Marsteller isn't as guilty of smearing Google as it is of committing a grand act of stupidity. What was it thinking when it offered a smart and principled privacy blogger like Soghoian assistance in writing and placing an op-ed sympathetic to its unnamed client? Didn't it know that Soghoian would rat them out? And how can you call a PR push a whisper campaign if it's being conducted via email, the simplest message in the world to amplify?
The coverage of the Burson-Marsteller fiasco has glossed over the fact that PR firms are deeply entrenched in the op-ed racket, working tirelessly for businessmen, politicians, celebrities, and other high-profile folks to write and place material. Almost nobody in the business bats an eye about PR firms' involvement. My colleague Michael Newman, who once labored on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, says it was not unusual for PR firms to submit op-eds from famous people to the Times. The origins of those op-eds would cause editors to read them with a more skeptical eye, he said, but it didn't automatically disqualify the submissions. Does anybody believe that the CEO of Acme Inc. really sits down and pours his soul into his op-eds? There's almost always a speechwriter or PR firm behind the words that go under their byline, whether it comes from a PR agent or not. (Sometimes PR companies become too successful at placing op-eds, as this story from the Nashville Scene about the Tennessean op-ed page indicates.)