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2019 prediction: Facebook will continue to show how not to do crisis communications

Posted by: Thomas Harrison-Lord on 11 February 2019

In 2019, Facebook will celebrate its 15th birthday. Staggering, really. Many marketers, especially those in the B2B sphere, still treat it as a newfangled platform that’s almost certainly bad for their health. This thinking, however, is old fashioned, and Facebook can be of real benefit to businesses, particularly because the platform provides targeted awareness for relatively little outlay.

But it’s not all smiley emojis, as unfortunately, the platform has a bit of an image problem.

Starting with a failed attempt at aggregating news, which stirred up concerns over political bias, and built upon with the Cambridge Analytica data advertising scandal, the California-based networking service now has to work night and day to fight against a deluge of negative publicity.

From harassment claims of former workers to stating that it will be investing in quality journalism, refuting that the 10-year challenge was to test algorithms, and removing fake Russian accounts, to research suggesting most users don’t know they are being tracked, the criticism appears to be never-ending. As recently as November 2018, the social media colossus admitted to hiring an external PR agency to specifically attack George Soros and undermine critics, a move that backfired spectacularly.

As the company’s missteps and vulnerabilities have stacked up, Facebook has become public enemy number one for internet privacy advocates and has been subject to a seemingly unrelenting barrage of media criticism.

For me, the issue lies in the poor communication tactics employed by the business in the early stages of questioning. At first, the strategy was to stay quiet, say ‘no’ to any media enquiries and then days later – after lots of time had passed for plenty of negativity to build up – reply with a Facebook post by CEO Mark Zuckerberg. By the time he and COO Sheryl Sandberg appeared in front of the cameras, their performances were less than convincing.

Facebook PR

Facebook employs a large PR and communications team whose aim is to uphold and improve the brand’s reputation. In 2019, they will have their work cut out. I believe that they are on a slippery slope and that the stench is almost irreversible without some drastic changes. Even then recent appointment of former UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg as head of its global affairs and communications team seems a little desperate.

I predict that Sir Clegg will have to completely reinvent Facebook’s communications, reputation management and PR strategy this year. It may mean a cleansing of the team members. Perhaps it is time for Zuckerberg to resign as the CEO? In a role reversal, Elon Musk is still the CEO of Tesla, but after recent mistakes in public, no longer sits on the board as chairman. I could see the same fate at Facebook, as a new CEO is appointed while Zuckerberg takes a step back from the spotlight to help the Facebook brand.

If that does happen, it will only serve to illustrate that quality communications through a switched-on and proactive PR team are essential. Changing the organisation within to be open to suggestions from the communications team is critical. Even monopolistic companies with a market capitalisation of over £400 billion can’t behave in any way they please. This same logic is applied to our clients, where being quick to comment or produce a statement helps to own and control the message, should a crisis ever arise.

There’s an excellent book called ‘What Did Jesus Drive?’ by former PR leader Jason H. Vines. In it, he explains how a PR team should always set out guiding principles from the start of a project or when new team members join. These are not to be deviated from and include clear actions to be taken during a crisis. ‘What if?’ scenarios, if you like. It seems to be like Facebook didn’t have such a backup strategy, and this is a lesson all B2B firms should take heed of this coming year.

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