Facebook is becoming a case study in how not to manage PR

Back on November 7 when Alan Patrick asked Facebook Ads: do they have a cluetrain? I thought he was being harsh and a little premature.  Fast forward one month to today, December 5, and he is starting to sound understated.

The Facebook backlash continues apace.  As Fred Wilson pointed out a couple of days ago that is in part an inevitable result of their recent success, but at the same time they are really not helping themselves right now.

As I wrote when Facebook Beacon was announced, I think they did the right thing.  They need to grow revenues, and the obvious way to do that is to leverage the information they have about us (including our friends lists) to target adverts more effectively.  I still think it was a smart move, but since the announcement, and maybe even before it, the implementation has been bungled.

They are playing with people’s private data and they must have known this would be a sensitive area – when I blogged about the announcement (same link as above) a couple of you commented that Facebook would most likely abuse the system, and that reaction was common around the blogosphere.  I replied that I hoped and thought they would be clever enough to get it right.

One of these days I will learn to stop being so optimistic.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how they were getting some of the details badly wrong, and around that time was when they needed to go into damage limitation mode.  That is something they have totally failed to do.

It is incredible that they seem to be forgetting the lessons of Cluetrain and not engaging the public in a conversation.

This post was prompted by Scoble’s Where the hell is Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook?:

It’s just totally amazing to me how badly Facebook is handling the PR around its new Beacon system.

This story is NOT going away. Even if this particular story goes away, there’s a bad taste in our mouths because Facebook tried to do something that clearly wasn’t for the users. When David Weinberger, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, says that you have a real PR problem.

…….

Do the press conference. Admit you screwed up. Take your shots. Look into the camera and say you’re sorry.

They are not doing any of these things and they will suffer unless they change that policy.

Trust is a fragile thing, easily broken and very hard to mend – this post on Read/Write Web shows how people have already stopped believing the things that Facebook is telling them.

It is a reminder of how fast things change these days that a company which just a couple of months ago was generally regarded as one of the most web savvy on the planet is fast becoming public number one.  It might have been predictable though – with hindsight the controlling mentality of Facebook has been evident for a while and perhaps that always meant they would struggle once they hit a crisis.  Umair takes this point a step or two further in his recent posts about their evil DNA.

As a caveat, I’m sure Facebook is still growing rapidly.  I think it is too early to estimate the impact of this crisis, which will ultimately depend on the extent to which all the anger and indignation spreads from the blogosphere to the world at large.  At this stage all I feel I can say with confidence is that the company will look back on this period as time when things took a definite turn for the worse – whether they can weather the storm remains to be seen.

  • @ Nic….my view tallies with yours – this is sensitive stuff, far more so than user feeds when I can see who is throwing dead sheep at who. In fact, research shows we are often more willing to share our sex lives than our financial ones.

    I think anyone who studies social nets “gets” that friendship groups run on trust, not utility. I think Facebook confused what they had – friendnets – with the sort of contact nets business people have, and assumed because the “Social Graph” looked the same, it worked the same – which has to make you wonder how well they “grok” the underlying dynamics of social nets (hmmm…I feel a post coming on).

    When I wrote the stuff a month or so ago it was because I immediately grasped how the system *had* to work (blows own trumpet) and thus could see (especially in the light of the hubris of the “100 Year Revolution” announcement) the likely abuses that a company struggling to make a $15bn valuation could carry out.

    Re PR…a fortnight ago I was at the NMK event on PR and made a rude comment (or 2) about Facebook’s PR – I definitely felt as if I’d farted in church, and was later told by a number of people, in no uncertain terms, that Facebook’s PR was the best in the business.

    If that is so then their tactics of staying shtum are absolutely deliberate, and they have clearly calculated that the storm in a blogcup will blow over. Lets see if it works…..

  • @ Nic….my view tallies with yours – this is sensitive stuff, far more so than user feeds when I can see who is throwing dead sheep at who. In fact, research shows we are often more willing to share our sex lives than our financial ones.

    I think anyone who studies social nets “gets” that friendship groups run on trust, not utility. I think Facebook confused what they had – friendnets – with the sort of contact nets business people have, and assumed because the “Social Graph” looked the same, it worked the same – which has to make you wonder how well they “grok” the underlying dynamics of social nets (hmmm…I feel a post coming on).

    When I wrote the stuff a month or so ago it was because I immediately grasped how the system *had* to work (blows own trumpet) and thus could see (especially in the light of the hubris of the “100 Year Revolution” announcement) the likely abuses that a company struggling to make a $15bn valuation could carry out.

    Re PR…a fortnight ago I was at the NMK event on PR and made a rude comment (or 2) about Facebook’s PR – I definitely felt as if I’d farted in church, and was later told by a number of people, in no uncertain terms, that Facebook’s PR was the best in the business.

    If that is so then their tactics of staying shtum are absolutely deliberate, and they have clearly calculated that the storm in a blogcup will blow over. Lets see if it works…..

  • kerry

    ironic that the anti-spam word that is showing up now is “MSFT”–given the topic is about privacy and arrogance.

    however, this time microsoft looks like a trusted provider compared to the mistakes of facebook and lest we not forget Google.

    Is the PR failure at Facebook a function of immaturity or is it something more endemic and therefore more problematic?

  • kerry

    ironic that the anti-spam word that is showing up now is “MSFT”–given the topic is about privacy and arrogance.

    however, this time microsoft looks like a trusted provider compared to the mistakes of facebook and lest we not forget Google.

    Is the PR failure at Facebook a function of immaturity or is it something more endemic and therefore more problematic?