Facebook's faceplant and what it says about the future of news

Facebook's anti-Google pitch is just one example of the troubling relationship between slick PR agencies and gullible bloggers

Though fallout from Facebook's laughably bad PR attack on Google last week has slowed to a steady drizzle, it's still raining and will be for some time to come. Aside from the fun of sticking the knife into Facebook, it's also a classic case study in how the media is manipulated, especially in these days of post-first-ask-questions-later blogging.

But first, the mea culpas: Burson-Marsteller (aka BM) issued an apology of sorts, severed its ties with Facebook, and is sending offending PR newbies Jim Goldman and John Mercurio (aka the Bumbling Simpletons, or BSers) back for training in BM's ethical guidelines -- not unlike the way Soviets used to send dissidents to the gulag for reprogramming.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Still holding out for Facebook's IPO? Cringely offers lots of reasons why Facebook isn't worth $5070 billion. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

My first reaction: Burson-Marsteller has an ethics policy? Why has it been keeping this a secret until now?

As Forbes' Parmy Olson points out, BM's previous clients -- Romanian dictators, the Argentine junta, tobacco companies, Blackwater USA -- make Facebook look like Orphan Annie. Hey, everybody has a right to manipulate public opinion in their favor, as long as their checks don't bounce. Right?

My question: How effective were the BSers before they got outed? How many reporters took the bait? Did the scheme still work, despite blowing up in Facebook's face?

It appears that USA Today almost fell for it, but caught itself in time. Seemingly at the last minute, reporters Byron Acohido and Jon Schwartz managed to turn their "Google is evil" story into "somebody (we're not sure who) wants you to think Google is evil, and hired Burson-Marsteller to sell it."

Other outlets, however, bought it hook, line, and sinker. A day or so after USA Today's story appeared, Gawker's Ryan Tate published "How Google spies on your Gmail account (and how to stop it)," which if not exactly ghostwritten by BM, certainly bears strong signs of dictation. Sayeth Tate:

In other words, Google is taking the intimate personal data in your Gmail account, using it to spy more effectively on you, and also using it for its own (hoped for) gain. That sounds pretty evil.

Score one for BM and Facebook.

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