Facebook Is Reaping What It Sowed by Creating Its Own PR Problem

  • Facebook’s success led them to adopt a culture of secrecy and hostility toward negative press.
  • This culture worked for the company until news revealed Facebook to have harmed society for profit.
  • Companies can avoid this by actually working with the press.
  • Ed Zitron is the CEO of EZPR and a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

In 2017, the BBC wrote that tech giants might be “finally facing a backlash,” citing the renewed interest of multiple governments in seeing Facebook held accountable for their role in spreading fake news.

The article doesn’t mention the company’s problems that happened before that date, like Facebook’s entanglement in the National Security Agency’s PRISM revelation, or their psychological experiments on users, or Zuckerberg’s failed $100 million investment into the Newark school system, or the massive Guardian piece that declared 2016 “the year Facebook became the bad guy.” That’s because up until the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the fallout from the 2016 election, any attack on Facebook seemed not to stick. As one of the darlings of Silicon Valley, like Apple and Tesla, the company was generally insulated from the majority of criticism and they recieved an endless flume of positive press

I remember a reporter back in 2015 telling me that he really liked Facebook’s communications team, specifically because “they answered him.” But others would say that they “had to play by Facebook’s rules” to keep getting access, lest they be cut off from new stories or the ability to talk to Facebook personnel, similar to Apple’s technique of blacklisting those who don’t abide by their terms of engagement.

This public relations strategy generally works well for companies that are “hot” at a particular point in time — when people are desperate to write about you, you basically do what you want, knowing that even the lightest cough you make will be news (like adding a hug emoji to Facebook).

It’s the public relations version of a carrot and stick — you focus on building relationships with those who write positive things, and shun those who don’t agree to cover things in your specific way. While it’s inevitable in PR that you’ll choose the path of least resistance, the core difference is seeing the press not as a necessary part of society, but as either an enemy or a propaganda arm for your company.

Last year, the Columbia Journalism Review published “Spies, Lies, and Stonewalling: What It’s Like to Report on Facebook,” a damning indictment of Facebook’s PR strategy, with “many journalists contacted for [the story declining] to talk out of fear of hurting relationships with Facebook’s communications shop [and] a number of journalists agreed to be interviewed, only to pass after speaking to their editors and PR reps.” The article, which tells stories of Facebook using off-the-record dinners to mold reporters’ stories, and in one case even writing a story for a reporter, includes a quote from former New York Times reporter Charlie Warzel, who “sees in Facebook’s battle-hardened posture a strategic effort to resemble companies like Amazon, which rarely responds to public controversy and somehow manages to weather every storm.”

This strategy is effective until it isn’t, but when exactly it stops working is hard-to-define. When a company becomes famous enough that simply existing is news, reporting on them becomes necessary, which removes the urgency of communications that many PR people struggle with in pitching stories.

The result is that the company in question acts with the confidence of someone that believes that the media needs them — the onus is not on the company to build relationships with reporters that may not say entirely positive things. While smart companies know that scrutiny is part of the process, those that have grown into multi-billion dollar enterprises can find themselves blindsided by negative press when the pristine, breathless coverage gives way to lengthy critiques.

What makes a “good” media relationship isn’t extremely challenging, either. Be available, answer questions quickly, clearly, and ideally on the record. Former Android Police Editor-in-Chief (and now Editor-in-Chief at Esper) Dave Ruddock told me that Qualcomm is a good example of a successful communications strategy in action. They are generally available for a quote and able to help reporters tap a product expert with ease.

“Another reason I always liked Qualcomm is they understood media relations was about facilitating conversations above all else,” said Ruddock. “If you didn’t feel comfortable talking to them, why would you? It’s a relationship and it requires work to maintain, and they understand that.”

In my own experience, the most successful large companies tend to be responsive to reporters — even when they can’t comment on the record — and make an attempt to build relationships with outlets outside of the biggest names in tech.

When negative press comes for a company like Facebook that has faced so little journalistic opposition, the rubber band effect is that much worse — because it usually means something really bad is happening. And when your communications strategy is based on a culture of intimidation, it’s hard to suddenly build positive relationships with a press corps that you’ve treated in, at best, a usurious manner. Now, Facebook is reaping what it sowed.

A shift across the tech industry

It’s all part of what I call tech’s move from an enthusiast to an industrial press — technology is no longer an interesting distraction or pastime, but a foundational part of our lives, and thus it is being treated with the seriousness and depth of investigation that we’d associate with the

banking industry
or politics. 

The fallout from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations around the company knowingly harming people for growth that came off the back of her revelations to the Wall Street Journal have Facebook reeling, with few to no friendly faces to defend them, no benefit of the doubt available, and no possibility of hearing “Facebook’s side of the story” — they have allowed the bridges they’ve burned to light the way, leaving them no conceivable way to escape what I think will be years of brutal press. 

For its misdeeds, Facebook deserves to be flayed, but it’s their own PR strategy that is compounding the problem. When a company spends the best part of a decade telling the media to do what they say or get nothing, one can only imagine that those scorned by their nasty tactics are now more willing than ever to scrutinize every word out of Zuckerberg’s mouth.

Facebook has never sought to charm the press like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, or create something that people adore, like an iPhone or a Tesla Model S. Thus when the walls have begun to close in, there is very little to defend, and very few people to defend it. Their products have become necessities, but nobody really loves Facebook or Instagram, and when the whistleblower came out and declared that that Facebook knew they actively harmed society, nobody was lining up to disagree.

While the result may not be the death of Facebook, we are arguably coming to the end of the line of the breathless hype-cycle of the Zuckerberg era. Their total lack of willingness to create lasting relationships with the media built on trust means that the media simply doesn’t trust everything Facebook says anymore. Perhaps it’s time for a leadership change.