Case Study: Facebook & Burson-Marsteller “Smear Google” Campaign


This lesson has addressed the purpose of ethics being the process of determining right from wrong, and the applied ethical obligations of public relations professionals based on the place we hold in society. As mentioned in lesson one, some suggest that the moral purpose of public relations is to create social harmony. With this in mind, the now infamous case of Facebook hiring the well-known public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller to develop a smear campaign against Google poses some very intriguing ethical questions.


In the ever-growing digital landscape, Facebook and Google have become well-known rivals of each other. In early 2011, Facebook opted to run a campaign designed to highlight negative components about Google. They recruited Burson-Marsteller to pitch the stories to journalists and high-profile technology companies, focusing on Google’s Social Circle, which tracks data activity through social media of Google users. Burson-Marsteller pitched the story without disclosing who their client was and “even offered to help an influential blogger write a Google-bashing op-ed, which it promised it could place in outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, and The Huffington Post.”

Course of Action

When the story broke in the media, there was strong criticism of both Facebook and Burson-Marsteller for what many deemed to be a “smear” campaign. Facebook responded in an official statement saying:

"We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way."

Perhaps the most interesting part of this case study, from the perspective of public relations ethics, is why a leading public relations firm would participate in a campaign of this nature. In response, the chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America, Rosanna Fiske, issued a statement to address these ethical concerns. She focused on the lack of disclosure as being a deceptive practice that violated the PRSA code of conduct. In addition, she pointed out that when deception is used as a core part of delivering a message, the public begins to question everything ever communicated: "When you are following misleading practices, the message is tainted," she said. Consumers "wonder what else have they done that perhaps I shouldn't trust."


Echoing the general consensus of unethical practices, Burson-Marsteller eventually parted ways with their client, Facebook. Reflecting on the situation, a spokesperson for the agency said Facebook:

"requested that its name be withheld on the grounds that it was merely asking to bring publicly available information to light." But, he added, doing that was "not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies, and the assignment on those terms should have been declined.”

Moral of the Story

In conclusion, this is a classic case example of the reason public relations professionals need to ground their practice in sound ethical decision making. In an industry with mixed-motives, serving clients, the public, and the profession, individuals must practice public relations with the highest levels of integrity and ethics in order to maintain trust.

Works Cited

Fowler, G. A. and Efrati, A.  (2011, May 13). Facebook Hired PR Firm to Target Google. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from:

Krietsch, B. (2011, May 12). Burson-Marsteller and Facebook part ways. PR Week. Retrieved from:

Lyons, D. (2011, May 12). BUSTED: It Was FACEBOOK That Hired A Former CNBC Reporter To Spread Lies About Google. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from:

Olivarez-Giles, N. and Guynn, J. (2011, May 12). Facebook paid PR firm to pitch journalists negative Google stories. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from:

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