Despite what you may have heard, Facebook's management is actually closely attuned to public opinion and its relationship with the press, according to a recent article in Ad Age citing Clarity Media Group CEO Bill McGowan, who has trained dozens of Facebook execs (including founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg) in the art of "media relations."
Thank goodness Facebook got some good PR advice! Because it would be weird -- bizarre, really -- if the world's dominant social network consistently displayed a tin ear when it came to interacting with the press and public in general. And incredible though it might seem, there were times when that almost seemed to be the case.
I'm not actually thinking of the incident cited several times in the Ad Age article to illustrate Zuckerberg's former PR obtuseness -- his ill-considered statement in January 2010 that "the age of privacy is over." Although executives are often penalized for telling the truth in the court of public opinion, I am personally disinclined to pile on during the "gotcha" moments: whatever Facebook's attempts to back-pedal from his assertion, Zuckerberg was obviously just saying what he thinks, and perhaps giving a fairly accurate assessment of the state of things. The only real outcome of that particular brouhaha is that -- thanks to his training in media relations courtesy of Clarity -- Facebook's head honcho will probably just be that much less honest (and interesting) in his public statements. In short, a wise move for Facebook and a victory for blandness.
No, the incident which springs to mind when I think of the words "Facebook" and "PR debacle" was much more recent -- when Facebook hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to plant negative stories about Google in the press ahead of the launch of the search giant's Facebook competitor, Google+.
As readers may recall, this attempt to kneecap a threatening rival was carried out with about as much subtlety and finesse as Jeff Gillooly's work on behalf of Tonya Harding. The subject line of one email pitch (blasted to journalists and bloggers more or less indiscriminately) read: "GOOGLE QUIETLY LAUNCHES SWEEPING VIOLATION OF USER PRIVACY!" Apparently it never occurred to anyone at Facebook -- or, even more embarrassing, Burson-Marsteller -- that people receiving these sorts of email pitches might wonder who was behind them, which would in turn prompt them to, you know, ask. Rather than lie, to their credit Burson-Marsteller disclosed who the client was, and press attention quickly focused on Facebook rather than Google. All in all, an epic PR fail.
I don't want to appear to be encouraging negative PR campaigns, but (as I noted at the time) it seems to me that a wiser approach would have been identifying a few trustworthy journalists or bloggers with whom Zuckerberg or other Facebook execs already have a relationship, and then pitching them the story informally, in person -- leaving no email paper trail. A couple placements would be enough: the same story appearing in too many different places simultaneously would naturally arouse suspicion. But is the reason they didn't try informal pitches to journalists simply because they haven't bothered to cultivate trusted contacts in the press?
Anyway, now that Facebook is PR savvy and "gets" media relations, will journalists be getting gift baskets from Mark Zuckerberg, subtly lined with white papers detailing Google's privacy violations? We can only hope! (Confidential to MZ: I like dark chocolate).