When PR Strategy Turns Ugly

Public Relations is a delicate balance of trust between practitioners, the clients, the media and the public. Used wrongly or willfully it can influence voters, or stockholders or business deals and not necessarily for the better. Take the Facebook vs Google campaign recently run by Burson-Marsteller. BM did a public relations campaign for Facebook that included trying to pitch a story to reporter about the grasp for data that Google is doing. Never mind that Facebook already has all that data and has their own troubles with privacy. What Facebook apparently did is hire this public relations company to at least stir media piranha if not feed fear to Google users.

The public relations plan backfired for a lot of reasons:

  1. The privacy blog journalist Christopher Soghoian asked a smart question of Burson-Marsteller-“Who’s your client and why are you pitching this info about Google”. While pitching the privacy guy would be smart if the client was the ACLU or other public advocate, not smart trying to use the reporter for personal gain.
  2. Facebook asked Burson-Marsteller to keep their identity secret. If you want public good, you don’t get to be behind the scenes. Clearly taking out Google would benefit Facebook.
  3. Smear sticks to you. Sooner or later the smear tactics come out. And people don’t like when you abuse their trust. Now, no one is going to stop using their Facebook page any time soon to punish Facebook for trying to keep our data all to themselves. We’ve already given up a significant interest in privacy to Facebook. We aren’t going to pay attention to the difference if Google has the same information. Google is beloved–people share the Google site when they make a cool graphic. The company name is so entrenched in today’s vernacular that the company name is transformed into a verb–go Google it to find it on the Internet. Not going to get hue and cry, sorry.
  4. Small businesses are grateful for the data collection and the micro targeting capabilities; some will use Facebook, some will use Google.
  5. Your PR firm may throw themselves on the sword and take you out while they are at it.

So don’t take a page from Facebook: don’t hire a PR firm to try to discredit your competition; don’t be stupid with the media and assume they won’t check your reasons or sources; don’t try to hold all the tiddly-winks and don’t do public relations secretly. It may backfire.

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