This business involving Facebook attempting to smear Google through a clandestine public relations campaign with one of the country’s topmost PR companies is revealing in what it means for PR’s role in journalism. Just as transparency ruins many of the old ways of behaving with journalists, so it does likewise with public relations.
We all know the history. Our buddy Walter Lippmann created so-called “professional” journalism as a way to manage society on behalf of the élite, and his pal Edward Bernays created so-called “professional” public relations to aid in the task. They are two sides of the same coin and go together like the proverbial “horse and carriage.”
PR is the channel through which the first two “estates” speak to the third by using the fourth. Confused? Don’t be; this is all a result of Lippmann and Bernays’ elitist social engineering.
In modern journalism parlance, PR is unnamed “sources,” those who feed the back channels of the news hegemony and help create the news, with their paid clients’ points-of-view being included, of course. In order for this to function properly, these interactions must be secret or “good old boy” handshakes or, worse, the mind washing of naivety at the reporter level. These people are oh so smart, and they manipulate the press by playing by the press’s own rules.
But those rules have run smack dab into what J.D. Lasica called “the Personal Media Revolution” and what Jay Rosen calls “the Great Horizontal,” and everything has changed. From bloggers to traditional media, the PR flacks from Burson-Marsteller ran into those who called “bullshit,” and the gig was up. Here’s the way Dan Lyons put it in The Daily Beast.
Yet here were two guys from one of the biggest and best-known PR agencies in the world, blustering around Silicon Valley like a pair of Keystone Kops. Even yesterday, when I asked flat out whether Facebook had been the client behind the campaign, a Burson spokesman refused to confirm it. Then, later, learning that Facebook had come clean, the Burson spokesman wrote back and confirmed it.
Facebook is embarrassed and rightly so. Shame on Zuck, because he should know better. Old rules of manipulation (and character assassination) aren’t as successful as they used to be, and I think journalism is better off for it.
UPDATE: Here’s Michael Arrington’s take on the Facebook “problem.” As always, it’s a worthwhile read.