PR Firm’s Attempt To Plant Anti-Google Privacy Story Backfires

Almost every technology company these days is starting to take some heat over privacy issues, and Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is certainly no exception. (Just this morning, its head of public policy was being interrogated by a Senate subcommittee.) But someone is making a concerted PR effort to pile on with yet more stories, apparently seeing privacy as a weak point for the search giant. One of the world’s largest PR firms, Burson-Marsteller, is now under scrutiny after its failed attempt to plant an anti-Google privacy story in USA Today.

The story of this failed pitch shows how politically explosive the issue of online privacy is right now, and how it’s being used by corporations as a tool to fight each other. The question that’s still unanswered, of course, is who exactly chose to fund this campaign.

Two Burson-Marsteller reps pitched USA Today, as well as two prominent privacy advocates, on the idea of a story or op-ed slamming Google’s Social Search function as harboring serious privacy violations. But USA Today reporters ultimately determined that the story being fed to them by BM was “largely untrue,” and Chris Soghoian-a privacy researcher who was pitched by BM on Friday-said that the feature doesn’t raise any privacy concerns. That’s noteworthy because Soghoian is certainly not the type who hesitates to criticize Google for its privacy practices. He rejected the pitch, tweeting: “I am quite capable of authoring my own anti-google stuff thank you.”

A second privacy advocate, Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy and Technology, confirmed that he had received a similar pitch from BM on the same day.

Of course, big-firm PR folks don’t work for free, and when Soghoian was approached he had only one question: “Who’s paying for this? (not paying me, but paying you)” he asked the BM rep via email. “I’m afraid I can’t disclose my client yet,” responded John Mercurio, who joined BM from National Journal last year.

The pitch backfired-big time-after Soghoian went ahead and published his email exchange with Mercurio. In the pitch, Mercurio offered to help write and place an op-ed in one of several high-profile D.C. media outlets, including The Washington Post (NYSE: WPO), Politico, The Hill, Roll Call or The Huffington Post.

Today, USA Today revealed that it, too, had been pitched by Burson; and the story pitch turned out to be “largely untrue,” writes USAT.

Now questions are being raised about Burson Marsteller’s ethics. Paul Cordasco, a spokesman for BM, offered this comment: “The situation that led to the USA Today story is highly unusual and does not represent standard practice at Burson-Marsteller. We regret that it was not handled well and we are reviewing it thoroughly.”

While he didn’t reveal the client, when I asked Cordasco directly if Google’s arch-rival Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) was the client, he said no-Microsoft had no involvement whatsoever. In recent months, Microsoft has tried to use privacy issues to gain a competitive advantage over Google in other contexts.

Asked about the Burson campaign, Google spokesman Chris Gaither said: “We’re not going to comment. Our focus is on delighting people with great products.”

The story BM was pitching was about Social Search, a function that Google first implemented back in 2009; Google tweaked the feature in February, including adding an additional privacy control. One reason that the BM pitch over this feature seems overheated is that what Social Search does is simply aggregate into search results what your friends and contacts have said publicly-on Twitter, their blogs or websites, or photo-sharing sites. It only works when logged in to a Google account. (Both the BM pitch and the USAT story refer to the feature as “Social Circle,” which is actually a feature of Google Dashboard that lets users monitor Social Search.)