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Facebook PR: The Highs and Lows of a Social Media Giant

Let’s talk about Facebook and more specifically, Facebook PR.

What started out as a social network for students at Harvard University has transformed into one of the ‘Big Five’ technology companies, alongside Apple, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Microsoft. Businesses don’t reach those dizzy heights without experiencing a few ups and downs along the way.

Facebook is no exception. On the upside, the brand has been lauded for investing millions in local news outlets and achieving its goal of reaching net-zero emissions across its supply chain. But data debacles, political propaganda and damning whistleblowers have undone the good work, landing the social media behemoth on the front pages for all the wrong reasons.

Let’s examine a few Facebook public relations highs and lows in more detail.

Facebook: An overview

Facebook sign with thumb outside HQ

Let’s take a moment to acquaint ourselves with Facebook’s history.

The social media giant was created in 2004 to connect students across campuses at Harvard. In 2006, it opened its virtual doors to the world, and quickly surpassed MySpace as the most popular social network.

Fast forward 20 years and Facebook is the world’s most used social media platform. Boasting just short of three billion monthly active users, it’s the third most popular website and the seventh most valuable brand in the world.

The stats are impressive, but it’s not all blue ticks for the social media titan. Facebook has had its fair share of PR woes.

Facebook public relations crisis 1: From Russia with loathe

Moscow at night

In 2016, Facebook found itself in a political pickle, thanks to Russian meddling in the U.S. Presidential elections.

Two separate organisations interfered in the election proceedings, leveraging Facebook to spread misinformation and propaganda.

The first was the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, whose agents created fake accounts and pages on the platform to share propaganda and fake news.

The second was The Internet Research Agency,  a.k.a the Russian Troll Farm, which spent $100,000 dollars on more than 3,000 ads to spread false information and sway votes.

The Russian-backed content reportedly reached 126 million Americans.

Facebook PR crisis response

Facebook’s response was poor to say the least.

In the first instance, they were slow to respond because at the time there was no rule against foreign groups setting up groups and pages to manipulate American opinion.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg then proceeded to downplay the incident. In a statement, he dismissed the notion that fake news shared on the site influenced the presidential race, describing it as a ‘pretty crazy idea.’

Zuckerberg’s flippant attitude wasn’t shared by his security team, who claimed the situation felt like a potential national emergency.’

Facebook didn’t publicly acknowledge the platform might have played a role in Russia’s election meddling until April 2017, when a company press release sheepishly admitted that its ‘data does not contradict’ a report by the U.S. director of National Intelligence suggesting that Russia carried out a vast cybercampaign in an effort to help elect Donald Trump.

It was only after a grilling by US congress, in which Senator Dianne Feinstein said, I don’t think you get it. What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare,’ that Zuckerberg expressed remorse for his earlier statement.

He said, ‘After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea that misinformation on Facebook could change the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive.’

PR takeaway

Zuckerberg’s flippancy led the US government, and his own team to question his decision-making and leadership skills.

If you want to avoid the same fate, be transparent when a crisis strikes. It may be tempting to downplay it, but it’ll only fuel distrust.

As far as Facebook’s lack of response to the propaganda is concerned, while there may have been no actual rules broken, they had a moral obligation to fix the problem.

The lesson? When disaster strikes, be proactive. Regardless of whether you have a legal responsibility to act or not, your reputation is going to fare a lot better if you get ahead of the game rather than sticking your head in the sand or covering it up.

For more on keeping your brand reputation intact, read: PR and Reputation Management: How to Build and Maintain your Brand Reputation with Public Relations.

Facebook public relations crisis 2: Analytica: data done wrong

Person looking at analytics on open laptop

In 2018, UK political consulting company, Cambridge Analytica, was found to have collected and used personal data from millions of Facebook users without authorisation. They did this through an app called This Is Your Digital Life (a personality test built by Cambridge University Psychology Professor, Aleksandr Kogan).

Kogan had permission to gather information from users who downloaded the app (and their friends), as per Facebook’s rules at the time.

What Facebook’s T&Cs didn’t allow Kogan to do, was pass this data on to a third party. Reports suggest that the Professor provided information on more than 50 million Facebook profiles to Cambridge Analytica, who were developing techniques to influence voters through targeted political advertising strategies.

This landed Facebook in hot water once again.

The news sparked public outrage amidst concerns about the safety of user’s personal data.

A #DeleteFacebook campaign swept across the internet, resulting in millions of people leaving the site, in protest against its use of data harvesting and manipulation.

The press coverage was equally damaging. The New York post labelled Zuckerberg a ‘Social Nit Wit’ while the Daily News led with ‘Anti-Trust Me’.

Facebook PR crisis response

It took Mark Zuckerberg five days to comment on the situation, which is a bad PR move in itself. But after Facebook admitted they’d known about the data breach for two years, it resulted in a public relations catastrophe of epic proportions and one which saw Zuckerberg called to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Facebook’s market value dropped by a whopping $37 million in a single day. Ouch.

PR takeaway

Staying silent is never a sensible public relations strategy. Hiding your mistakes from the public will always make a situation worse, and, as Facebook has proven, scandals have a habit of coming out. If you make a mistake. Admit it. Take ownership and explain how you’re going to fix it. After all, trust is easily lost, but hard to win back.

If the Facebook PR team had done this from the outset, they could have saved themselves a long and expensive public relations headache.

Facebook public relations crisis 3: Facebook papers

Mark Zuckerberg as graffiti

In 2021, the tech giant faced its biggest crisis to date when former employee turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen released a series of internal documents dubbed The Facebook Papers to the US Securities Exchange Commission, and a series of American news outlets.

Haugen claimed the 10,000-page collection of internal reports, memos, and chat logs contained proof that Facebook ‘repeatedly and knowingly put the company’s image and profitability ahead of the public good – even at the risk of violence and other harm.’

The trove of documents showed that Facebook was aware of the harmful effects of its platform and how top execs had repeatedly dismissed concerns by its own researchers and employees.

They also highlighted numerous instances of Zuckerberg being economical with the truth. For example, in 2020, he testified before Congress that the company removes 94% of hate speech before a human reports it. But in internal documents, researchers estimated that the company was removing less than 5% of all hate speech on Facebook.

In October 2021, news outlets began publishing the information found in the leaked data. Here are a handful of the reports, courtesy of Protocol.com:

Facebook PR crisis response

Given the magnitude of the crisis and the mountain of damning evidence, you’d have thought Zuckerberg would ‘fess up and make a grovelling public apology. Nope. He went into hiding, while the Facebook PR team went on the offensive.

In an attempt to discredit Haugen, they released a statement saying she’d worked for the company ‘for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question.’

When he finally returned from his sailing trip, Zuckerberg announced a company rebrand in an attempt to  deflect attention from the barrage of negative press. But the damage was done.

In the wake of the scandal, ‘Meta’s share price slumped, advertisers jumped ship, and the platform haemorrhaged users. To top it off, a study by Harris Brand found that Facebook’s score of trustworthiness dropped to a measly 6.2%.

PR takeaway

The main takeaway from this Facebook public relations crisis is simple: Don’t do a ‘Zuckerberg’. When sh*t hits the fan, you need to be on the front line, ready to deal with the fallout. And I don’t just mean the media fallout. As a CEO, you have a responsibility to your employees – to explain the situation, reassure them, and lead them through the crisis.

Going on the offensive is poor PR practice too. Rather than discredit the whistleblower, Facebook should have publicly acknowledged its (many) mistakes, apologised to its stakeholders, and made a commitment to rectify the issues.

The same protocol applies for any brand facing a crisis.

While owning up to your mistakes won’t stop the negative press or loss of customer trust, it’s the right thing to do. If you do it authentically, at the very least, it’ll soften the blow.

Want the lowdown on managing a PR crisis? Read: Crisis Management in Public Relations.

Positive Facebook PR 1: £300m investment in local news

Facebook logo on SmartPhone screen

It’s been a rocky few years for the Facebook public relations team. But it’s not all fake news and dodgy data dealings.

Let’s look at some examples of Facebook public relations done right.

In 2019, Facebook announced a $300 million investment in local news – an initiative designed to revitalise local journalism.

Critics argued that Facebook was to blame for the troubled times that local news rooms were facing, and the funding was a poor attempt at making up for the damage done.

‘They have practically monopolized news distribution, helped to destroy the business model of an important social service and now they would like to make up for it by giving a fraction of the money back?’ said a News Hacker user.

But many were thankful of the support Facebook was offering. Pulitzer Center founder and executive director Jon Sawyer said:

‘We are grateful for Facebook’s commitment to helping us meet the challenges of today’s journalism, especially in smaller cities where the survival of news outlets depends on new models of reporting and community engagement. We also applaud Facebook’s commitment to the editorial independence that is absolutely essential to our success.’

Good deeds by large corporations will always be met with scepticism. It’s the nature of the beast.

But as TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha says: ‘Regardless of motivation, if it helps, it helps.”

PR takeaway

Helping out smaller, local organisations is never a bad thing. But be careful not to do it for the wrong reasons. There will always be cynics with a glass half empty perspective. You don’t want to prove them right by coming across as disingenuous.

Your ‘why?’ is the difference between a positive and negative public relations story.

Positive Facebook PR 2: Facebook goes green

Facebook logo illuminated on wood background

In 2018, Facebook committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% and powering its global operations with 100% renewable energy by the end of 2020.

The news was warmly welcomed. Praise was heaped on the brand by some of the world’s biggest environmental campaigners, like Greenpeace:

‘Facebook has shown just what companies can achieve when they show ambition and leadership in tackling climate change. Samsung Electronics, one of the most recent companies to adopt 100% renewable commitments, would be well-served to follow Facebook’s example.’

Target nailed

In 2021, Facebook turned a good PR story into a great one by not only meeting its target but surpassing it.

The company achieved its goal of supporting its global operations with 100% renewable energy and over-delivered on its promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, hitting a 94% reduction.

PR takeaway

Sustainability is a hot topic in the business world. A growing number of organisations are recognising the importance of adopting and enforcing sustainable practices.

To its credit, Facebook made a public commitment to sustainability and followed through. However, many companies talk the sustainability talk but don’t walk the walk. Remember the VW emissions scandal?

Sustainability may be big news, but so is greenwashing. The lesson? Delivering on what is promised is a highly underrated PR technique. If you decide to go public with your sustainability goals, make sure you deliver and you’ll reap the rewards.

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