Lessons from Facebook on how not to conduct PR

There are many things companies should do during a crisis, but then there are also things you shouldn’t do. This time around, Facebook ticked a few of the boxes in that list.

 The New York Times’ investigative report brought to light Facebook’s mishandling of the 2016 Russian influence campaign. The story, accurately titled ‘Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook Leaders Fought Through Crisis’ was published after six months of reporting and interviewing people within the company, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

The article outlines the failure of the key leaders in Facebook Zuckerberg and Sandberg – and their disregard for the core tenets of crisis PR.

Zuckerberg and Sandberg were accused of purposely misleading the public and its own board to downplay the depth of the Russian breach, rather than coming clean with the facts that they knew when they knew them.

 This strategy clearly failed. But the trouble doesn’t end there. Facebook then hired public affairs firm, Definers, to win favor with Republicans. Allegations have surfaced that Definers led a misinformation campaign on behalf of Facebook by posting content targeting detractors, which was then reposted to right-wing “news” sites. Sandberg responded to the allegation saying, “We absolutely did not pay anyone to create fake news”

Within twenty-four hours of the Times’ report, Facebook refuted the article and fired Definers. Zuckerberg even denied knowledge of the firm. 

However, the damage was already done. The opacity in which Facebook operated in reacting to the mounting crisis goes way outside the core components of crisis management. Not only did Facebook’s stock tank so did its reputation. 

Facebook then dialed up its PR offensive by doubling down on its denial of the allegations on exclusive TV interviews. However, on Thanksgiving Eve, Facebook’s now-former head of communication Elliot Schrage posted to Facebook’s blog trying to explain the rationalization behind hiring Definers, a company known for its “unconventional” tactics. Schrage even went as far as admitting to using Definers to target detractors, such as George Soros, a prominent investor, and philanthropist.

Schrage employed the oldest PR trick in the book by dropping this news on the eve of a holiday so that it garners less attention, but also no one can accuse you of not being transparent.

The story doesn’t end there. After all of this, NBC recently reported Sandberg has admitted to having knowledge of the work of Definers. Something she had denied previously. It certainly is interesting that Facebook’s hiring of a crisis PR agency would itself become a crisis.

“After a year of increasingly worrying revelations about the scourge of misinformation on Facebook, it is still shocking to learn Facebook itself employed the same tactics that bad actors have used to exploit its platform”, said Justin Hendrix, executive director at NYC media lab.

 Facebook’s attempts at media manipulations and public misdirection serve as a case study on how not to handle a crisis. A company’s values and mission should not be usurped by media manipulation.

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