It was okay for Facebook to hire PR pros to go after Google until they started to lie and conceal the client’s name

Don’t be shocked by the news that Facebook hired public-relations agency Burson-Marsteller to plant negative stories about Google ‘s social-networking feature, Social Circle.  Companies, governments and politicians try to plant stories and create Internet buzz all the time in an effort to shape public opinion or influence elected officials and regulators.  They also establish support groups and foundations, fund research, commission experts to write articles and distribute video news releases to TV stations.

I’ve been involved in these kinds of issues management public relations campaigns from time to time.  I want to share one example that concerns a now defunct supermarket company, The Penn Traffic Company, which at one time made the Fortune 500 list of largest companies by sales volume.  A stitching together of several regional supermarket chains across upstate New York, New England, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, Syracuse-based Penn Traffic’s business eroded over two decades for a number of reasons, one of which was Wal-Mart.  The Northeast was the last U.S. market to which Wal-Mart expanded and wherever Wal-Mart went in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, it seemed to run into a Penn Traffic store.  Wal-Mart always has looked first to small towns and that’s where Penn Traffic was strongest.

Now when Wal-Mart opens a store in a small town like Rome, New York or DuBois, Pennsylvania, the local downtown stores usually die quickly, and money in the form of profit flows out of town to Wal-Mart corporate headquarters.  That’s why soon after an announcement of Wal-Mart’s plans to build, many local small businesses band together to try to stop the behemoth.  And guess who provided financing to these anti-Wal-Mart groups in the towns where Penn Traffic had supermarkets?  Yes, Penn Traffic did.

And there was nothing wrong with it, for two reasons:

  1. We (Penn Traffic and its PR agency, Jampole Communications, Inc.) never lied.
  2. We never tried to conceal what we were doing.

Over the course of several years, reporters from various local newspapers may have asked me a dozen times if Penn Traffic was funding a specific group, and I always answered with some version of the following, ”That’s right, we support these groups and are proud of it.  Wal-Mart will take business away from our store, because every new supermarket takes business away from the existing supermarkets; Food Marketing Institute numbers show that half of food sales go to the new nearest supermarket, and every new supermarket becomes the nearest one.  But we are also very concerned about the negative impact of Wal-Mart on small towns.  Everywhere Wal-Mart has gone, it has cannibalized local and regional businesses owned and operated by residents, turning smaller cities into ghost towns.  We are more concerned about what Wal-Mart will do to our community than we are about its impact on our business, which is large and thus able to respond to competitive challenges.”

I would also make sure that reporters understood that although many articles identified me as a Penn Traffic spokesperson, I was in fact an outside consultant hired by the company.

Contrast this attempt to influence the public and regulators to what Facebook/Burson-Marsteller (BM) did: The posts that BM employees made contended Google Social Circle violated user privacy and may have broken federal regulations. Two USA Today reporters uncovered that many of these claims were false.  When asked about its involvement, BM at first refused to name the client. 

By spreading falsehoods instead of speaking the truth and by not identifying who was paying for the message, Facebook/BM crossed a very clear and clean ethical line.  It is shameful and gives other corporations and their propagandists a bad name.

The broader issue if course is whether or not it’s okay to hire professional communicators to pass on truthful information, assuming that it’s relevant to the issues at hand.  I think it is okay, because not to allow the free dissemination of truthful information is a form of censorship. 

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