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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6 comments

  1. This is a great post and perspective on this "issue" and makes me feel better for my complete lack of interest in the matter. Like you, I wasn't shocked to hear about it and doubt the average American would care either, as this kind of stuff happens all the time in politics.

    The ethics discussion in the PR world seems to go around in the same circle but never really lands anywhere. Ethics are always a gray area, so what is ethical to one person may not be to another. I think every PR person has been put in a position where some compromises are made. That's not to say that all that PR people do is unethical either. It's a sliding scale and I don't expect an organization like the PRSA to have to tell me how to behave ethically.

    Jeez, sorry to rant on your comment roll! Just goes to show, you've made me think about ethics and reality in PR practice.

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  2. As you mentioned in your post, it's not the ethical/unethical aspect of the whole campaign that has me scratching my head, but simply the shoddy PR work. If it had gone off without a hitch, it would have become a worthwhile case study.

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  3. An honest take on a practice that occurs everyday in PR and virtually every industry. Thanks for the article and sharing your view so well.

    Steve Bullock

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  4. Whoa, Jeremy... you dropped the F-Bomb (and I don't mean FUD or Facebook) so I know you take the mishandling of this campaign quite seriously. On the other hand, you're making sausage and linking Foghorn Leghorn. Never a dull moment. Here's hoping you're staying on the lighter side of gray.

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  5. I can agree with this, Jeremy. I'd say B-M is perhaps closing in on FUBAR designation.

    I do have a continuing problem with the use of PR as a universal. You, thankfully, make distinctions - such as PA.

    I'd suggest that it does not happen in the lives of most PR practitioners, because most are not agency or Washington/State PA practitioners. Most are local. As you know, I don't think that myopic use of the universal PR will be cured anytime soon.

    The B-M apology is lame, as it places the responsibility (and blame) solely upon their targets re: the information they were sharing. From B-M: "Any information brought to media attention raised fair questions, was in the public domain, and was in any event for the media to verify through independent sources." It is that last section about verification that suggest someone's doing a bit of CYA at B-M. All of it did not raise fair questions.

    Further, since we know that some of it was false, we need to remind B-M that sharing truthful information (and vetting it first) is a joint responsibility.

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  6. I agree with Dave. It's not the shock of the fact that there was a FUD whisper campaign; it's the "what were you thinking" aspect of the unsuccessful campaign. We wouldn't be writing about this if it was done correctly. I mean how do two journalists who, as the article says, should have the connections to successfully undertake the campaign end up reaching out to people through blind emails? Did the grasp the concept of what they were supposed to be doing? If you are going to do something do it right the first time or don’t do it at all. Isn’t that what you are getting paid for? And for those the want to say that PR should take the high ground on such matters, maybe you should sit down with some PR practitioners and have a "off the record" conversation with them. You would see PR in the same light again.

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