Facebook PR: Tonight We Dine In Hell!

There’s currently something going on in the outskirts of the tech world that’s a bit sensitive, so no one really likes to talk about it: we (journalists, bloggers, etc) are at war with the PR industry.

That sentence alone will throw the PR flacks into a tizzy. “Hyperbole!” “Sexy statement, no substance!” “Don’t believe everything you read!” And all the other bullshit they typically spew to blunt interesting concepts into dull, gray PR-friendly dribble. We are at war.

And no, this isn’t about dumbass embargoes (though that remains a huge problem that the PR industry doesn’t seem to have any real interest in solving). This goes deeper.

The fact of the matter is that the entire PR industry is like a weed growing out of control. Current estimates have PR people now outnumbering journalists 3 to 1. Think about that for a second. And one of the industries in which this infectious growth is most apparent is the tech industry, where it’s boom time. My email inbox is a testament to this. As is my voicemail inbox. I’d bet that at least 75 percent of the messages I get in the day are from PR people. Their campaign strategy in this war is shock and awe.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that all PR people are evil or have the wrong intentions. Many are very nice people. And some are even very good at what they do. But increasingly what they do is nothing more than attempt to spin or grossly misrepresent what it is we do. For many of them, helping journalists/bloggers/writers get access to accurate information is secondary. It’s all about controlling a narrative — by any means necessary. And that has to stop.

Case in point: Facebook.

While I like many of Facebook’s PR team on an individual basis, as a whole, they are probably the worst in the industry when it comes to manipulation, double-speak, and all around slimeballishness. And while the Burson-Marsteller debacle (you know, the failed smear campaign against Googleshowcased this fact to the world, things had been bad long before that. And they’re still bad.

A couple days ago, I wrote a story about a secret Facebook project called “Project Spartan“. I gave Facebook PR the heads up over a day before I published, to see if they wanted to comment, and they declined. So I wrote the story, and immediately the PR machine goes into action.

The basis for my story was that Spartan, as seen from the perspective of developers actually working on the project and from myself (I saw everything), is clearly aimed to be step one in a maneuver against the companies currently controlling the mobile ecosystem, namely Apple and Google. Facebook has been making it very clear over the past two months to these developers that mobile Safari in iOS was the initial target. So yes, as I see it, and as the developers working on the project see it, Facebook is in the beginning phases of going after Apple. But they’re doing so as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Obviously, Facebook did not like this angle.

Facebook PR began emailing journalists almost immediately, trying to pitch them stories countering my story. What Facebook PR failed to realize is that the people they’re emailing are far more loyal to their own kind than to some flack. I was immediately alerted to these messages from multiple friends in the industry.

“You guys should remind people that there’s not much new in tonight’s TC story,” began one message. “You guys should” — three words that should never come out of a PR person’s mouth. Ever.

The narrative they tried to spin (all on background, naturally) was basically that Facebook CTO Bret Taylor has long been talking about the importance of HTML5 to the company. No shit. I’ve sat down and spoken with Taylor about this before. And I linked to that interview in my Spartan story. What Facebook PR conveniently did not address at all in their emails to journalists was Project Spartan or the larger ramifications — their own mobile app distribution mechanism and mobile Credits payments scheme. Those are the big elements. And both are very new.

Facebook’s email was trying to make journalists believe this was a total non-story. And yet, at the exact same time, Facebook’s developer relations team began a hunt to find out how this information got to me. How do I know? I have those emails too.

Facebook sent developers working on Spartan (“Team Spartan”) a blunt reminder that all the information about the project was confidential and not to be shared with anyone outside of the project. They also demanded that developers add a new “security feature” to their apps. In other words, a way to track who is seeing what about the project.

So my “non-story” caused Facebook to lock down Project Spartan? Makes total sense.

Meanwhile, Facebook PR shot another email out to journalists. “There’s a bunch of confusion out there right now from the TechCrunch story yesterday, especially in how this is wrongly positioning us against other companies,” is the opening line in this one. Again, the meat of the info sent is all on background — in other words, the journalists can use it, but can’t say it came from Facebook. In other words, Facebook PR are manipulative cowards.

This type of manipulation is nothing new in the industry; companies do this all the time. But that doesn’t make it any less shady. And guess what, it works!

Exhibit A: This GigaOm article from yesterday: Project Spartan isn’t anti-Apple — it’s pro-Facebook. There were four main bullet points in Facebook’s background information from their email, and that article conveniently hits on all of them.

Next, Facebook PR dispatched Bret Taylor to talk to the WSJ to once again counter the Project Spartan notion. To their credit, WSJ did not eat up the company line word-for-word. Instead, it appears they too talked to developers working on Spartan (which they erroneously call “Titan” — Facebook’s old codename for what became Messages) and got the same reaction we did, “Facebook’s underlying motivation is to position itself as an alternative development platform for programmers that now tailor mobile apps specifically for Apple’s iOS operating system or Google Inc.’s Android,” they wrote.

At least one more major publication was ready to publish similar findings about Spartan, but were dissuaded by Facebook PR at the last minute, we’re also told.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Amid the flurry of bullshit Facebook PR is spewing, let’s just think about this from a common sense perspective.

With some 700 million users, Facebook is one of the biggest forces in the tech world today. But their glaring weakness is that they do not ultimately control their own destiny. They have flourished on the desktop-based web, which is mainly open, but mobile is the key to the future. Facebook has been doing pretty well here so far, but because they do not control the platforms they are on, things are likely to get hard for them going forward as rivalries intensify. They already have a robust rivalry with Google, the ones in control of Android. And by all accounts, the relationship with Apple is complicated to say the least. You think it’s an accident Apple went with Twitter for iOS 5 single sign-on? Please.

It’s ridiculous to argue that Facebook should not be making moves to put themselves in control of their own destiny. In other words, of course they should be working on their own mobile app distribution and payments model! They’d be stupid not to. Yet that’s the story Facebook PR is trying to spin. It’s ridiculous.

The explosion of mobile apps as controlled by Apple, Google, and the like is absolutely a threat to Facebook. Facebook is not a non-profit, they need to make money. And they know one of the key ways forward are the apps on their platform and the use of Facebook Credits in those apps. Apple, obviously has other ideas. They want users on their apps, using their in-app payment system. While Facebook having a unified app directory for mobile and the web sounds peachy keen, payments are very much on a collision course. And I’m hardly the first person to bring this up. This is a very real issue for Facebook.

So why not just admit what is painfully obvious? Why go to all this trouble to spin this elaborate tale of peace and harmony in the mobile ecosystem? “Facebook and all of our developers will choose both [HTML5 and native apps]. You want to reach as many people in as many places as possible,” Taylor tells WSJ. Ha. Okay. Tell that to the team of two that barely has the resources to create an app on one platform, let alone two or three or ten. Facebook absolutely wants HTML5 to win here because they want to be the platform that controls the mobile space. Who wouldn’t want to be in that position? It’s totally disingenuous for them to say otherwise.

So again, why not just say it? Because they’re scared shitless of Apple. That’s what this song and dance is really all about. One source familiar with the relationship between both sides compares Apple’s treatment of Facebook to an “abusive spouse”. Facebook has pissed off Apple in the past, and it has had ramifications. They have to tread lightly here.

Here’s where things get more interesting. Apple knows about Project Spartan, and is believed to even be lending some minor support to the project. Why do that for a project that ultimately hopes to usurp the native App Store and Apple payment model? Because Apple is not afraid of it at all, we’ve heard. And based on some of the HTML5-based Spartan apps I’ve seen, I have to agree. The likelihood users would choose these over a native iPhone app right now, is laughable.

So in mildly supporting Facebook’s efforts here, Apple looks benevolent and smart (while shaking their head and laughing). But I also believe Apple doesn’t know the full extent of the project. The Facebook Credits aspect, for example. Again, that’s really the key here, and I believe the main reason Facebook is pissed off about our Spartan story is this part in particular. Apple may not view Spartan as a threat at all right now — and in fact, it sort of helps them because it is moving popular games, like the ones by Zynga, off of Flash and onto HTML5 — but down the road, that is absolutely what Facebook intends it to be.

Still, perhaps Apple is that bearish on HTML5 app development. But others certainly aren’t. Not just Facebook, but many developers, including all the ones working on Spartan. They believe that HTML5 will eventually take down the native model. But perhaps Apple just has the mentality that they’ll deal with that issue when it actually becomes a problem.

We also know that Apple has been working with Facebook on their iPad app, which should finally be available in the next few weeks. Apple has wanted this app since the initial iPad launch just over a year ago. After all, the Facebook iPhone app is the most downloaded app of all time. Like it or not, it’s a selling point for the device. At first, Facebook made it sound as if they weren’t going to do one at all. But they have been working on it for months. And there’s no reason it should have taken that long, unless they were holding it back as some sort of leverage over Apple.

Leverage for what? That we’re not clear about. But recent code changes in Spartan suggest that the project could work inside of Facebook’s iPad app as well. All of this could very well be related.

That story will evolve over the coming weeks. And hopefully we’ll be the ones to bring it to you, and not Facebook PR feeding up bullshit from a cloaked hand.

The moral of the story is that Facebook PR can talk until they’re blue in the face about how their secret project now on lockdown is neither new nor interesting, but consider who is talking. I’m not going to go so far as to say they’re outright lying, but they are being extremely disingenuous and manipulative. (How do I know when Facebook PR is full of shit? Their mouths are moving.) From now on, that’s to be expected. We are at war, after all.