A secretive story has been bubbling in Silicon Valley this week, in which the PR firm Burson-Marsteller pitched anti-Google articles to national newspapers on behalf of some unnamed client. Google, they claimed, has privacy issues that the American people should know about — but it was far from that pure. The PR company went to journalists and bloggers, even telling them that they would do the work; all they needed was someone’s name to stick up top. USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Politico were all potential targets. Today, Dan Lyons of the Daily Beast reports that it was all on behalf of Facebook, a company that, as we all know well, has some privacy issues of its own. Details about the brewing scandal inside Press Clips, our daily media column.
Two-Facebook: Popular blogger and privacy expert Christopher Soghoian blew up the PR plot when he posted his email exchange with Burson-Marsteller online.
“I wanted to gauge your interest in authoring an op-ed this week for a top-tier media outlet on an important issue that I know you’re following closely,” writes the PR man to Soghoian. And later: “I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet.”
Soghoian knew something was up. In an interview with Betabeat, he explains, “It seemed pretty clear what they wanted was my name and I could get away with as little work as possible, they would place it and ghost write, they would just use my name.”
Facebook, he says, needed to do it secretly because they have no cachet when it comes to privacy:
I really think this was an attempt by one large company to stab a dagger in the back of a competitor. For five or six months Microsoft has been making noise about Google’s privacy problems.
The difference is Microsoft can do it publicly, because they don’t have their own privacy problems. Facebook is no better than Google on these issues, so to make these attacks they have to hide behind these PR companies. If they tried it in public, under their own name, people would laugh in their faces.
USA Today took Soghoian’s whistle-blowing to the next level, accusing the PR company of working on a “whisper campaign,” but it was the Daily Beast that nailed Facebook:
Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: First, because it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.
The beef is that the search giant is encroaching on the territory of the social networking giant, using some of Facebook’s information while the two fight for internet advertising space as two of the largest companies currently operating online.
But beyond tech angle is the media’s role. And Soghoian says it almost worked: USA Today, he claims, “were basically in the very last stage of having a story a front page story ready to go, based on the letter from Burson-Marsteller. At the last minute they saw the email exchange I posted, and realized they had been bamboozled. Privacy makes headlines these days.”
It does make headlines — at sites like Gawker and Business Insider — like “How Google Spies on Your Gmail Account (And How to Disable It),” which now comes with an update that reads, in part, “since publication, it appears that the story may have been the result of a Facebook-led smear campaign.”
Unfortunately for Facebook, fucking up a covert spy-style story-planting mission makes headlines too. Planting stories in the media that paint business or political competitors in a negative light is an age-old practice; it’s the job of journalists not to swallow the story without asking questions, but to sift through the bullshit and publish the truth.
Stat Watch: Like the New York Times and its paywall, there has been much media chatter about the online traffic lost by Gawker Media in the wake of its redesign. But the most recent indications are that the numbers are bouncing back, and look especially good when compared to April 2010, as shown by Romenesko, and across the board pageviews seem to be rising. Unique visitors are still down and those are Nick Denton’s favorite: “We can’t just satisfy our existing regulars; we have to recruit new ones,” he’s said. Still, the redesign disaster may very well have been exaggerated.
That said, though we came out early guessing it would ultimately work, we’d be lying if we said we’ve enjoyed it. The site is much slower, in our experience, and not fun to navigate, so as a result, we use the old version whenever possible.
Pretty Pasture: Jim Lehrer, 76, is ditching his anchor chair at PBS News Hour starting in June. He says he’ll come by on some Fridays, which sounds like the best kind of retirement for a newsman.