Facebook, Fortune, and Public Relations in the Social Media Century

Communicators are taught that it is not “if” a crisis happens, it is “when.” As a result, a response plan needs to be in place. In today’s 24/7 media environment, crises are bigger stories than in the past and disseminated faster. And, believe it or not, some flames are fueled by the media into even larger proportions.

A CEO sticking his foot in his mouth and responding in anger to criticism is not new. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is another in a long line who displayed poor judgment when facing an unwelcome spotlight.

How should Facebook execs respond to recent criticisms by Fortune magazine’s David Kirkpatrick and Josh Quittner? Are the concerns of these influential writers simply too “inside baseball” for the site’s users and the wider public to even care? I’m wondering if the disconnect between their criticisms and Facebook users is real or sensationalized by the press to generate a story. If so, what do communicators do to deal with the resulting consequences?

Let’s take a look at some of the language Quittner uses, for example, to discuss Facebook’s challenges. On his Fortune “Techland” blog, Quittner used the title: “RIP Facebook?” Here is his lead:

“A lot of people say that Facebook has jumped the shark. That’s flat out wrong. In fact, Facebook is now being devoured by the shark. There’s so much blood in the water, it’s attracting other sharks. And if Facebook’s not careful, one of them is bound to come along and finish it off. I’ve never seen anything like it in the annals of fast-rising tech companies that fail.”

He qualifies the lead with the “a lot of people say” phrase, but it is pretty clear that he is leading readers to agree. In essence, Quittner is saying, people say this really bad thing, it’s actually much worse, and I’ve actually never seen anything worse. Sounds a bit overly-dramatic doesn’t it? Among the thousands of Web companies that failed during the dot.com crash, Quittner’s never seen anything worse? Hey Josh, remember Webvan?

Quittner’s second paragraph:

“The really weird part of this story is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Facebook. It works as well as it ever has, and many of the people who use it (my kids for instance) are unaware of the worsening situation about its privacy-invading Beacon social ads scheme that tracks people’s web-surfing habits even when they’re not on the site. That’s bound to change. The market is fickle, something better is in the wings, and as soon as it arrives, the alienated and angry mob will race to it. Delphi’s errors begat Prodigy and its errors begat AOL, which was crushed by the Web.”

Reading just these two paragraphs, it struck me that Quittner could have easily led with the second paragraph, which would have been closer to the story he outlined. However, the doom and gloom of the lead gave it that little negative angle that journalists use to get the reader’s attention (perhaps if we replaced “attention” with “publicity” we would be even closer to the truth for using such language, but as a PR professional, I certainly wouldn’t want to publicly call out a journalist for self-promotion, would I?).

Anybody thrown by the “many” in the second paragraph? He equates Facebook’s users to his kids (without identifying their ages) in an attempt at disparaging the company:  “many of the people who use it (my kids for instance) are unaware of the worsening situation…”

Another shocking aspect of Quittner’s complaint, to me, is that he blames Facebook’s troubles on bad PR:

“What’s harming Facebook – perhaps to a terminal degree – is enormously bad PR. For a social media company, these folks don’t understand the first thing about communication; they have alienated the press by being arrogant, aloof and dishonest. Their idea of press relations is sending a stupid message to a What’s New at Facebook Group that directs you to another website for a canned statement.”

Calling out Facebook’s “enormously bad PR” is legitimate. A company as powerful as Facebook in the Web 2.0 world certainly should be on top of its game in terms of communications. However, is this another case of PR playing the role of easy target?

PR is playing whipping boy, which seems to be a favorite game of journalists lately, including the infamous Chris Anderson outing of those he labels as bad practitioners.

The problem I have with Quittner’s post blaming PR for Facebook’s current troubles is the air of superiority he takes (surprise, surprise), which those in communications are used to getting from journalists, and the insinuation that it is PR “folks” who “don’t understand the first thing about communication,” basically indicting the entire industry in one fell swoop.

In response, Quittner’s using loaded language, certainly designed to generate publicity for the blog/magazine. There are countless reasons that Facebook might fail, but it’s laughable to believe “that it has no one in its corner that anyone in the media trusts,” thus doomed to history’s dustbin. So, don’t worry about the 57 million Facebook users…move over sock puppet, make room for Zuckerberg. Sure…

3 Responses to “Facebook, Fortune, and Public Relations in the Social Media Century”

  1. Meg says:

    This post was a refreshing read considering the growing number of articles and blogs lashing out at PR professionals for outlandish reasons. I know that as a student I’m getting tired of journalists claiming those of us in PR are ineffective communicators. I actually just posted a similar article, so it was great getting your insight on this issue!

    Take care.

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