Stupid PR Tricks: The Facebook-Google Edition

Oh, such hilarity. Where to start? The total lack of common sense? The failure to think strategically? The hypocrisy?

Facebook's PR debacle of last week -- when it was revealed it hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to plant negative stories about Google in the press -- was ridiculous, incompetent, malicious, and all-too-plausible. Despite their careful attempts to cultivate laid-back images, both companies have a fiercely competitive streak and rightly view managing public opinion as key to their long-term success. So why wouldn't they talk trash about each other, including furtive campaigns to seed negative publicity in the press?

Of course it's all in the execution, and here Facebook's ham-handed blundering obviously left much to be desired. The subject line of one email pitch read: "GOOGLE QUIETLY LAUNCHES SWEEPING VIOLATION OF USER PRIVACY!"  And this email was blasted to journalists and bloggers more or less indiscriminately. Subtle and smart!  Indeed, far from signaling that Facebook has become a "buttoned-up" traditional corporate player, as some have written, I think the PR contretemps shows just how unsophisticated the company still is. And without appearing to support this kind of negative PR campaign, I will say if you're going to do it, it requires a much more careful approach.

As a reporter I think I can count on one hand the number of times I have received a formal, official "poison pen" PR pitch -- meaning, a pitch (accompanied by a release or fact sheet) that is solely and specifically intended to do harm to some client's competitor. I'm not sure how other reporters feel about them, but I will say that in my case they immediately arouse suspicion for all the reasons you might expect: who's behind this? What are they hoping to gain? Are any of these accusations substantiated? And then there's the natural aversion to the idea of someone attempting to manipulate you from behind the scenes.

All of which is to say: I think the reason I don't receive many "poison pen" PR pitches is because they are usually a bad idea. Again, I don't want to appear to be encouraging negative PR campaigns, but it seems to me that a (much) wiser approach would have been identifying a few trustworthy journalists or bloggers with whom Facebook's bosses already have a relationship, and then pitching them the story about Google's alleged privacy violations informally, in person -- leaving no email paper trail. A couple placements would be enough: the same story appearing in too many different places simultaneously would naturally arouse suspicion.  Meanwhile if the story is sufficiently compelling it will spread of its own accord... probably through Facebook!

The fact that Facebook went about this silly plan in such an obtuse fashion leads me to conclude that they still have a terrible tin ear for public relations, which is hilariously ironic for the world's largest social media company. And part of me wonders: is the reason they didn't try informal pitches to journalists (with whom they have relationships) simply because there aren't any -- meaning, they haven't bothered to cultivate trusted contacts in the press? My impression from talking to other journalists is that Facebook is a pretty tight-lipped, not to say secretive, institution. Which is their prerogative... but which also recommends more caution with these kinds of shenanigans.

1 comment about "Stupid PR Tricks: The Facebook-Google Edition".
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  1. Eric Scoles from brand cool marketing, May 17, 2011 at 6:28 a.m.

    Dude, don't you get it? This is all a plot by Google to make FB look bad. Zuck is just keeping quiet while he works on his counter-strike.

    All kidding aside, this is totally consistent with what former FB insiders have told me about Facebook culture.

    It's also a great contrast with the Larry & Sergey show, which is all about positive energy. I've been annoyed enough at them in the past, because people take the 'don't be evil' thing way too seriously (and assign it way too much meaning), but the truth is that google's core approach is web activisim 101: get people saying good things about you by doing things to say good stuff about. It's an approach that makes sense to confident people who come of age in an environment where their talents were respected, instead of resented.

    Google & FB both make a lot of stuff that sucks. The difference in response to criticism is subtle but important. At FB, the internal response (I've been told by former coders) to user complaints is usually 'that's because they're idiots, leave it and they'll learn to like it.' At Google, it's usually more puzzlement: 'why don't they understand this is better?'

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