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Just like everyone’s mother always said, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Or as my grandmother used to say, “Keep mouthing off like that and a bigger boy’s going to pop you one.”

The owned media vs. earned and paid media debate is apparently not immune from the same wisdom passed along by our elders: Google has officially popped Facebook right in the kisser for saying, well, not-so-nice things.

As has been widely reported all over the web, Facebook was caught red-handed engaging in a smear campaign against Google via public relations company Burson-Marsteller. After Facebook came clean on Wednesday, the PR firm admitted they had pitched stories to bloggers and other media with statements like “The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloging and broadcasting every minute of every day–without their permission.”

The source of Facebook’s ire is Google’s Social Circle, which permits users of Google Chat and Contacts to see public information about each other–including Facebook information, Twitter feeds, and personal websites.

To be fair, Google’s profiling isn’t exactly opt-in. Whether or not users have a Gmail or other Google service account, they must sign up for Google Profiles in order to customize and decide exactly what information is available to others.

But compare this to Facebook’s labyrinthine privacy and security settings, and the frequent complaints about user privacy issues and information sharing, and it seems like the pot calling the kettle black.

Facebook has since stated that it did not intend to engage in a “smear campagin,” but was merely trying to ensure the public was well informed. I don’t recall a public service announcement from Facebook “informing” people that they disclose user information to advertisers and other third parties.

Regardless of intent, in my mind it all comes down to the inherent transparency of owned media. Engaging a PR firm to propagate negative sentiment via earned media about another company, all the while asking that your company’s name be withheld, is a smear campaign whether you admit it or not.

Compare that tactic to using owned media channels to go beyond marketing your services to calling into question the business practices of a competitor. How far would you go, knowing that your official platforms were the source of potentially injurious (or worse, libelous) statements? Would you be more or less inclined to bite your tongue?

Not that any of this will ultimately matter to either company: users are more and more free with their personal information on the web, and to most people this is a non-story about two corporate behemoths pointing fingers at each other in the usual game of “Oh yeah? Well guess what they did!”

Despite the myriad complaints about privacy, Facebook isn’t losing users in droves, and people still depend on Google’s various services like they were oxygen.

White this is far from the first or last such incident, it is nonetheless embarrassing for any company to be outed for throwing such an obvious and ultimately useless low blow. If you’ve got something to say about a competitor and don’t have the sand to be completely transparent via owned media, do everyone a favor and heed mom’s advice.

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1 Response

  1. The debacle has also put a spotlight on several negative bit players. Everything from ghost writing on blogs, to security breaches with identity tokens that weren’t revealed to users. Facebook is beyond the point where they can “blame it on my youth”, a great rendition done by Chet Baker, btw. Will we see Sheryl Sandberg or Ted Ullyot step up and help them get their ethical footing? Doubtful. A friend suggested that Facebook hire a Chief Ethics Officer.
    As I have said before, this type of pervasive behavior, not just at FB, but everywhere on the web, will hopefully drive us to a place where the consumer ultimately has much more control over their privacy markers. The day when we “gift” consumers with the tools to do their own “marketing” will become a reality. In the interim, there will be much protestations and gnashing of teeth.

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