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Facebook's (Failed) Stealth Attack on Google

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on May 25, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ever heard of Google's Social Circle, an add-on for existing Google users to help add friends and invite new contacts? No? You're not alone. News of a secret, stealthy - and kind of sleazy - PR attack on Google by Facebook was recently brought to light by USA Today.

Burson-Marsteller, a top public relations firm, started a "whisper campaign" to encourage various media and news outlets to print a story about how Social Circle was some sort of invasive breach of privacy for Google users, reports USA Today. Burson said that they were working for an unnamed client.

Suspicious about the source, most outlets declined to publish the story. USA Today instead published a blasting story about how Google was deflecting Burson's PR smear campaign.

And, a few days later, Burson fessed up. As it turns out, it was actually a secret campaign by Facebook, who had contracted with Burson to spread the story. It was ironic, considering the amount of flak Facebook usually gets with respect to its own privacy issues.

The story about the (failed) stealth attack on Google raises some questions about what is ethical in this day and age of technology and publicity.

For law firms, if one of your clients comes to you with the same situation - what are you to advise them? It's not technically illegal to encourage a publicity firm to spread some bad news about your competitor if the news is true.

But, it's also something that seems unethical, and a bit, well wrong. And, if you are revealed to be the originator of the publicity campaign, you're essentially bringing bad publicity to yourself.

For firms themselves that are thinking about their own firm publicity, the message also seems to be fairly clear. In this age of technology, and ironically, the lack of privacy, it seems bad and unpleasant news can be easily dug up by your enemies. Watch your back.

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