The news yesterday that Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller – one of my former employers and one of the world’s biggest PR companies - to place negative stories about Google in the American press is a genuine PR disaster.
With the growth of the internet, and particularly social media, we have seen a welcome increase in transparency from major global businesses in all sectors. No longer can multi-national companies get away with saying one thing and doing another; from environmental policies to executive pay every company should expect the truth will out eventually. Therefore, with all companies I have ever advised – whether a UK based manufacturer or a major business operating in the Middle East - I have always counseled them to be utterly 100 per cent transparent.
Despite this, the news that one business was briefing against another was not a huge surprise. Some may think the ‘dark arts’ are only put to good use in the political world but this is simply not true. What did surprise me was the ham-fisted way Burson-Marsteller went about smearing Google. Since the admission, Burson Marsteller has terminated its contract with Facebook. If I worked for Burson I would be worrying how many companies would be terminating their contracts with us.
Increasingly businesses are turning to smaller PR and communications agencies to do their bidding for them. This latest PR disaster for a PR company goes to show why. With the speed the world moves in today’s digital age, companies who use tactics such as this to smear others will always fail. Meanwhile, will this damage Facebook? Probably not, as they currently hold a dominant position with a product that is a monoploy in some markets. It would take many millions to decide to stop using Facebook for this row to have an impact. That doesn’t mean they can be complacent.
Microsoft and Nokia once had what appeared to be unassailable positions in the market before being overtaken by younger, more nimble competitors. Facebook will face competition one day soon so should avoid any more PR disasters like this which may hasten their decline.