NEWS ANALYSIS: Avoiding the Facebook backlash

Facebook is enjoying an extended honeymoon with the media and public, with clear potential for grassroots lobbying. But PROs need to tread carefully when using the site for campaigning, says Clare O'Connor.

HSBC: reversed decision to charge students for overdrafts after Facebook campaign
HSBC: reversed decision to charge students for overdrafts after Facebook campaign

Earlier this month, Facebook ann­ounced the imminent opening of its London headquarters to a collective whoop of obsequious delight from the UK media. Media Guardian’s Organ Grinder columnist Jemima Kiss described the social networking site’s move as ‘a bit of Silicon Valley gloss in Soho Square’. BBC News columnist and self-confessed ‘Facebook tart’ Bill Thompson hailed the site as one of a handful ‘transforming the web’s ability to teach us about one another, not in broad terms but as individuals, with our hopes, aspirations and separate, but equally important, lives.’

The same week, The Wall Street ­Journal’s digital correspondent Kara Swisher reported that top executives at the Silicon Valley outfit were mulling a multi-billion-dollar investment round.

With bloggers and private equity inv­estors alike taking a keen interest in the site, it should come as no surprise that PROs and lobbyists are finding ways to capitalise on the popularity of web 2.0’s most notorious start-up.

Lobbying power
Facebook has been used as a lobbying tool in the US since its 2004 inception. The unusually high turnout of young voters aged 18 to 24 in the 2004 presidential election has been partly attributed to Facebook. The site, alongside political portals such as MoveOn.org and prospective Democrat candidate Howard Dean’s Meetup.com, was part of what the US media dubbed a ‘netroots’ campaign: political activism org­anised through social networking sites, blogs and other online media.

At the time, a number of spokespeople for candidates and causes aligned with the 2004 election created Facebook profiles and formed groups. The impact of this outreach was felt particularly on university campuses, where Facebook helped campaigners reach a young, net-savvy ­demographic.

In the UK, it has taken longer for lobbyists, campaigners and PROs to use Facebook as a PR tool. There have been a few instances of pro-active use of Face­book. Frank PR is clearly behind Here comes London Ink!, a Face­book group promoting the upcoming Discovery Channel show chronicling a London tattoo parlour, its proprietors and its customers. The agency was recently hired to launch the show, a spin-off from the popular Miami Ink series. Frank MD Andrew Bloch has been adding photos and cuttings to the group page.

But, most lobbying activity on the site has been reactive, with young users grouping together against large corporations. The most high-profile success story has arguably been the National Union of Students’ use of ­Facebook to force HSBC to reverse an unpopular decision to charge graduates for their overdrafts. The NUS set up a Facebook group called ‘Stop the great HSBC graduate rip-off’ that has so far attracted more than 7,000 members. The student body used the group to rally support for a demonstration outside HSBC’s Canary Wharf headquarters. In August, after the NUS’ online lobbying had generated a deluge of media coverage, HSBC decided to refund interest on overdrafts for 2007 graduates.

Mark Hanson, a partner at PR agency Staniforth and co-writer of the ­Labourhome blog, claims the astonishing amount of coverage generated is indicative of the media’s current obsession with all things web 2.0. ‘Traditional media are so in love with Facebook at the moment,’ he says. ‘The guy from the NUS who called all the newspapers about this HSBC group is a rec­ent graduate. But he got his story into all the nationals because it involved Face­book. It has just hit the zeitgeist.’

But Hanson sees Facebook as a ­potential minefield for sloppy PROs who fail to disclose their affiliations. ‘If someone signs up for a group, he or she may not know who is behind it,’ he says. ‘People can sign up and then lose commitment. The ties between these people are weaker. It can be quite transitory.’

No PR gaffe proves Hanson’s point quite like the recent failed Facebook stunt by Edelman’s US office, on ­behalf of client Wal-Mart. Edelman set up a Wal-Mart ‘back to school’ Facebook group aimed at selling stationery supplies and dorm furniture to college students. However, its 1,000-plus members soon hijacked the group’s discussion board, turning the talk away from products and prices to Wal-Mart’s controversial labour practices and anti-unionisation policies.

Facebook fallout
This was Edelman’s third failed web 2.0 venture on behalf of Wal-Mart. In 2006, the PR firm set up a blog that claimed to be written by a couple travelling across the US in a caravan, visiting various Wal-Mart branches. The main blogger was revealed to be a freelance writer on Wal-Mart’s payroll. The retail giant subsequently set up its own social-networking site, The Hub, but it was closed after less than three months.

Brands2Life head of new media Gareth Thomas sees this sort of backlash as the tip of the iceberg. ‘Often, in the internet world, a backlash really starts to hurt when users realise their new toy is actually a commercial tool designed to make money,’ he says. ‘There are already a lot of people starting to say that Facebook is just a huge marketing database designed to capture information for advertisers.’

Weber Shandwick director of public affairs Luke Akehurst has already had to deal with Facebook fallout. His client, Camden Stables Market, was the subject of a massive word-of-mouth campaign that started on the site. ‘People have misrepresented the redevelopment of a portion of the market, and more than 20,000 members of a Facebook group think it is going to be knocked down,’ Akehurst explains. ‘It was fed out to the media and we have had to do loads of rebuttal.’

But Akehurst thinks Facebook can be a positive tool for PR if used in the right way. ‘We’re already seeing the proactive use of this technology in politics,’ he says. ‘Local candidates are seeing Facebook as a very powerful organising tool. I’ve no doubt that PROs will find ways to use the site effectively.’

However, agencies that fail to disclose their PR credentials on Facebook will, like Edelman, quickly find themselves outed by an increasingly savvy audience. ‘PROs just have to be judicious and transparent in the way they use Facebook,’ says Akehurst. ‘Clients that try to fake grassroots campaigns will be very quickly exposed.’

 

See Olswang associate Ashley Hurst discuss the legal issues around using Facebook... WATCH

 

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