Monday, May 16, 2011

Hyperbole meets Hypocrisy: Googlegate

If you're in public relations, you've already heard about Googlegate. Simply put, Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller to conduct a FUD whisper campaign about privacy and security against Google.

It's a joke. No, not that B-M undertook such a campaign (or how badly it was handled) but the hyperbole from the press that borders on Foghorn Leghorn declaring the 'shock, I say shock, of the PR game' that they are intimately involved. The "smear" of the campaign that is just so shocking that it's going to be the downfall of Google, Facebook and journalism (or something) ... when it's just another day at the office.

Or the hypocrisy of public relations executives that are claiming that they would never undertake such a campaign for a client, never have done a FUD or whisper campaign and how bad and evil it is. Right, keep saying that and repeat it to yourself the next time a client asks you to share information (either client or competitor) with the media. Yes, that's a whisper campaign. Or, well, keep lying to yourself so you can claim the moral high ground (for whatever that's worth).

Or the innocence - oh the poor innocence that will be severely beaten out with each campaign - of the students whose souls' will gain a little bit of grey with each call or email to a reporter to give them background. It's called public relations - and it's like knowing how sausage is made: you don't want to, but you guys are now in the sausage business.

You see, this is just a standard operation in public relations; It's even more common in public affairs. It's called spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt to deposition a client. A whisper campaign is just what it sounds like - you call up a few people, meet them in person, and feed them information in that Bourne way you know you always wanted to do.

What's sad/bad here is how badly handled this campaign was by two former journalists - two journalists that should have had the connections to successfully undertake such a campaign and instead were blind emailing bloggers and reporters (really, email!? How quaint) with whom they didn't have deep relationships. The fun irony is how poorly the tech reporter treated PR people - hi kettle, it's pot!!

So here's a primer for anyone that wants to undertake a FUD/whisper campaign:
  • If you have no relationships - real deep relationships - with reporters, you're fucked and going to fail (see example above)
  • If you are using email, you're missing that verbal part of whisper. It's called a whisper campaign for a reason ... it's verbal.
  • Have real information if you're doing a FUD whisper campaign, e.g. "Hey, I heard product X doesn't work from these people, you hearing the same thing?" (Look at how easy that is - AND you just depositioned the competition at the same time you were doing competitive analysis and digging!!)
  • In this age of social media, well, the rules don't really change: have relationships
Have I ever undertaken a whisper or FUD campaign while working for a client? I am not at liberty to answer that, but anyone that has been in the industry - especially technology - has done a whisper campaign of some sort. Or gone on background to a reporter at some time (and yes, fed information about competitors while on background). And if you're smart, you think of ways to position your company over the competition and feed that information to friendlies.

As for the "ethics discussions" that have sprung up around this - really, we're going to have a discussion about how the sausage is made? There's good PR, there's bad PR and then there's that gray PR. And in the PR world, it's all about gray.

If PR is upset about anything, it should be about how poorly this campaign was done. In reality, the issue isn't the campaign or even the lack of transparency. It is about how badly the campaign was executed.

For another great, balanced take on it, make sure you read Stuart Bruce's post.
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