Google's been looking to influence the world even more than it has. According to a breaking investigation from Wall Street Journal story, the company has regularly pays professors at top universities -- $5,000 to as much as $400,000 -- to create research that bolster's Google's views to government regulators.

Influence is incredibly important in business. You want to affect decisions of customers, industry figures, government regulators, pundits, and others. It's why companies will look for spokespeople to make their case. Or why they will hire social media influencers (even though they may have no influence) or run extensive PR campaigns.

Even startups have to make sure they're heard, get their view across. The type of extensive funding of research that Google has undertaken may or may not be effective. The question is whether trying to influence public discourse, regulators, and others indirectly, particularly when your involvement isn't necessarily disclosed, is a wise idea.

Google and some of the researchers told the Journal that there are no strings tied to funding. Academics are free to publish the research or analyses whether their findings would ultimately benefit Google or not. But not all the research the Journal looked at indicated that Google was associated with the study in any way, and there can be other interactions that raise questions:

Some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions, according to thousands of pages of emails obtained by the Journal in public-records requests of more than a dozen university professors. The professors don't always reveal Google's backing in their research, and few disclosed the financial ties in subsequent articles on the same or similar topics, the Journal found.

Even though some professors said Google doesn't control what they do, there's still the potential appearance of impropriety.

This isn't a new issue. The tobacco companies were notorious for this, for decades successfully battling the growing knowledge of the dangers of smoking. Part of our national obsession with dietary fat was a result of the sugar industry paying scientists to refute or play down the potential role of sugar in heart disease 50 years ago. Similar techniques have been used by companies in the drug and oil industries.

Often enough this material eventually comes to light. As a result, people become less trustful, companies have massive public relations nightmares, and brands get damaged.

In fact, there was a different example in the Journal piece. It mentioned the work of the Campaign for Accountability, a non-profit that has documented Google's support of hundreds of academic papers, but then noted that the organization received funding from Oracle, which is a rival of Google's. I contacted the Google Transparency Project and was pointed to a statement that did not address the question. In a separate email, the executive director said: "CfA does not discuss its donors. As the statement says, we believe our work speaks for itself." Apparently Oracle has admitted the connection publicly.

And, as we're talking about statements, here's one from Google:

Ever since Google was born out of Stanford's Computer Science department, we've maintained strong relations with universities and research institutes, and have always valued their independence and integrity. We're happy to support academic researchers across computer science and policy topics, including copyright, free expression and surveillance, and to help amplify voices that support the principles of an open internet. And unlike our competitors who fund the Campaign for Accountability, we expect and require our grantees to disclose their funding.

Maybe Google should notice that not all its grantees disclose the funding every time they mention their work.

Those in startups may be laughing at the notion that they could get caught in such issues. Who has the money to commission such work? But a lack of transparency doesn't need big funding to occur. Ever pay someone to write a "thought leadership piece" for your content marketing program without getting the major insights from you? Have you talked colleagues or friends into leaving favorable reviews of your products and services without mentioning the connection? Hired a social media influencer to promote your business in a way that is supposed to seem genuine? No matter how big or small your company, it's possible to be more or less transparent in lobbying and promotion.

Some companies, some people, manage to pull off secretly arranged influence and profit from it. Perhaps they'll never be caught. But they might. Part of the pleasure of running a business is knowing that your product or service makes people happy and that your popularity is based on your own merit. Taint the water at all and you reduce the real pride you can take, even if you're never caught. Winning really isn't everything.

Published on: Jul 12, 2017