The web’s abuzz with astonishment today that Facebook hired PR agency Burson-Marsteller to try and trash Google with senior U.S. journalists by claiming the search giant was invading people’s privacy.

According to the Daily Beast, which has a full account, Burson pitched journalists and bloggers on behalf of an unnamed client encouraging them to look into Google’s Social Circle, a hitherto little-known feature which lets people with Gmail accounts see information about friends of friends, or “secondary connections.”

Says reporter Dan Lyons:

‘Burson, in its pitch to journalists, claimed Social Circle was “designed to scrape private data and build deeply personal dossiers on millions of users—in a direct and flagrant violation of [Google's] agreement with the FTC.”

Also from Burson: “The American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloguing and broadcasting every minute of every day—without their permission.” ‘


The Daily Beast later won confirmation from Facebook that it was behind the claims, bringing the whole murky mess into the open on blogs, Twitter and traditional media. What’s so astonishing about this is that Facebook thought it could remain anonymous when making such strong allegations. After all, which journalist wouldn’t want to know who was making such claims, and why?

The roots of this lie in Facebook’s accelerated and astonishing growth, which has left it with a split personality. While it might still think of itself as a scrappy start-up at heart (witness Mark Zuckerberg’s famously hands-on approach), it’s also a world-beating business valued in January at $50 billion and a central part of the PR, marketing, sales and customer acquisition strategies of thousands of brands.

Facebook’s had problems with its communications approach before, most notably over its ill-fated Beacon launch, which sent data from external websites so it could serve advertising based on people’s behavior. The service was closed down in 2009 but not before Facebook’s high-handed approach and lack of willingness to explain attracted a slew of criticism.

Regardless of whether there’s any accuracy in Facebook’s most recent claims, the problem it now faces is that its underhanded approach has become the story, not anything that Google has done. The Facebook brand has been unnecessarily damaged as a result, and that damage will last for some time to come (Beacon was back in 2007).

To protect its reputation with the brands that are investing so much time and money into it (and with the wider world), Facebook needs to get older and wiser – fast. It needs to adopt the smarts and savvy of more mature businesses, as it doesn’t have the luxury of time to evolve them.

Ironically that’s just what Google did when it brought in Eric Schmidt to provide “adult supervision” 10 years ago, to help it overcome its own growing pains. This was a very smart move by founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as it allowed them to focus on what they were best at, and learn first hand from an old hand. Now Page has stepped into the role of chief exec himself.

Given how Google is now making social media a priority, as with the unveiling of +1 (the equivalent of Facebook likes for Web pages) announced this week, this could be the first of several such spats. Microsoft vs. Apple Mark 2 anyone?

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Helen Nowicka is executive vice president, digital, with Porter Novelli Public Services in Washington, D.C.