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Facebook’s recent PR disaster shows how not to handle a crisis

Posted by: Thomas Harrison-Lord on 10 May 2018

Mark Zuckerberg has a lot of explaining to do.

I find it all too easy to forget that Facebook has been around for 14 whole years. I received several notifications recently that I’d been friends on Facebook with several people for 10 years.

Old news institutions are still quaking in their boots. I don’t know why. They should have sold up long ago and passed their boots on to someone else. It’s over. The battle for news, relevancy, culture and satisfying our inherent needs for that latest update has long been won. Data is victorious, time will only further solidify my opinion.

As a result, the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook case has been a fascinating test case. A very serious threat to the biggest and most eponymous of the internet giants. Or so some would have you believe.

The big problem is that I feel many people do not understand the actual allegations. I’ve heard all sorts of colourful explanations, including the hacking of your Facebook account to leaking your data to fake news authorities. All of which are wrought with falsifications and exaggerations.

Facebook PR Crisis

What really happened

To expound what happened, briefly, developers can create apps within Facebook or externally, and utilise Facebook’s API for a variety of features e.g. being able to log-in to a service using a Facebook account.

Back in 2014, Aleksandr Kogan created an app called This Is Your Digital Life as a personality quiz. Back then, the Facebook API let developers access Facebook user information, such as the pages people like. Kogan then sold the data collected by his app to Cambridge Analytica, without the app users being aware. Cambridge Analytica then allegedly used this Facebook data to target promoted political posts in the run-up to the last US election, in complete violation of Facebook’s terms.

Also in 2014, Facebook changed the way apps worked and a similar data collection system was no longer possible. The story was initially broken by The Guardian in 2015, but because Cambridge Analytica didn’t delete the data — and Facebook seemingly made no serious attempts to investigate further — fast forward to 2018 and Christopher Wylie became a whilst-blower to the whole scheme and Facebook suddenly had a drama on their hands.

A PR disaster?

The real damage was done, however, after the initial breaking news. In a company with over 25,000 employees, it appears that crisis management is not a strong suit.

Take Scott Galloway’s plan of attack for PR management during a crisis for example: Address, acknowledge, overcorrect. Facebook just sort of sat there, not doing any of those three key PR elements, while the stink got stronger and ‘delete Facebook’ campaigns grew.

The rumours and misgivings about what had actually happened spiralled out of control, as a subject matter that is easily twisted became a story that lost the company $37bn in market capitalisation. Neither CEO Mark Zuckerberg or COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke initially, instead a generic update was posted online by the company. A public statement by Zuckerberg was only made once pressure had already mounted.

Facebook

How is Facebook improving?

Which leads us on to the recent yearly F8 conference, where Facebook shows the world its latest innovations. It started with Zuckerberg explaining how they are working hard to keep the integrity of political elections, introducing AI to remove fake accounts, requiring a government ID to run paid political advertisements, that they will have 20,000 people working on security and content review by the end of 2018, and a big push on fighting fake news.

Zuckerberg even said: “Cambridge Analytica was a major breach of trust. An app developer who took data and sold it. We need to make sure that never happens again.”

This has damaged Facebook’s reputation, and the company let the stink happen for too long in an age where mud sticks. Public relations errors were made in the style of a rookie up-start, not one of the biggest companies the world has ever seen. Public confidence in Facebook is at an all-time low, but it needn’t have been.

Were the F8 announcements too little too late?

The answer is no. Of course, what ultimately happened is that a tiny percentage of users deleted their Facebook account, while the rest of the world just carried on reading their newsfeed, replying to group chats on WhatsApp and liking pictures on Instagram. These are all Facebook services, lest we forget. They were even confident enough to enter the online dating space with a new service.

For now, it seems like a small blip in the continuing upward trend of the social media platform. The business will have learned many hard lessons from the world of the press and will hopefully come back stronger the next time anything threatens its place at the top of the internet table. It needs to.

Any other slip up and the future of digital marketing as a whole could be swinging in the balance. Or, a more likely outcome, Instagram will most likely become the primary focus and we can carry on our merry way. Happy days.

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