NEW YORK - The intense rivalry between Facebook and Google just got juicier.
In a twist seemingly out of a Hollywood thriller, Facebook hired a prominent public relations firm to try to plant stories harshly critical of Google's privacy practices in leading news outlets. The efforts backfired when the firm approached a blogger who not only declined the assignment but also went public with the offer.
The latest Silicon Valley drama has also evoked chatter of smear campaigns, secrecy and even Richard Nixon.
One lesson: If you're going to write an incriminating e-mail, don't. Pick up the phone instead.
"If you are out there planting negative stories, you are feeding the conflict," said Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, a public relations company. "When they get in a shoving match, whoever is perceived by the public to be the bully loses in the public eye."
Rather than getting news outlets to circulate stories about privacy problems involving Google, Facebook found itself having to answer questions about why it wanted to maintain secrecy.
Facebook said it never authorized or intended to run any smear campaign against Google. Rather, the company said it hired Burson-Marsteller to prompt investigations into how a new Google service called Social Circle collects and uses data about people. In a statement, Facebook said it should have made it clear that it was behind the efforts.
Burson-Marsteller said Facebook had requested that its identity remain secret "on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light." The firm said that violated its own policies, "and the assignment on those terms should have been declined." Not that it was.
Facebook's efforts to stay anonymous - something that violates the terms of service for users of its site - began to unravel when Burson-Marsteller contacted blogger Christopher Soghoian, an Indiana University graduate student well known in online privacy and security circles.
The firm's John Mercurio asked Soghoian whether he wanted to write an item for "a top-tier media outlet" blasting Google for what Mercurio called a "sweeping violation of user privacy." Soghoian asked for the identity of the firm's client, but Mercurio wouldn't reveal it. Soghoian then posted the e-mail exchange online.
Burson-Marsteller, meanwhile, also made a pitch toUSA Today. Instead of running the planted story, USA Today published an article on the "PR firm's attack of Gmail privacy."
It took Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons to figure out that Burson-Marsteller's mystery client was not Apple or Microsoft, as some murmurs went, but Facebook.
"The mess, seemingly worthy of a Nixon re-election campaign, is embarrassing for Facebook, which has struggled at times to brand itself as trustworthy. But even more so for Burson-Marsteller, a huge PR firm that has represented lots of blue-chip corporate clients in its 58-year history," Lyons wrote for the Daily Beast, a website owned by the same company as Newsweek.
And so, people got a rare glimpse inside Facebook's thorny relationship with Google in a story more befitting behind-the-scenes Washington politics than the sparring between two seemingly friendly tech giants.
"Odds are that if you are writing about something controversial or doing something controversial, someone is going to leak it," said Smith, the crisis-management expert.