Facebook growth strategy: get chummy with PR

Facebook has reached the 500 million user milestone and the social network is eyeing future growth and communications challenges ahead by befriending the PR industry.

SAN FRANCISCO: Now Facebook has officially reached the milestone of 500 million users, the popular social network is preparing itself for future growth and the inevitable communications challenges ahead by befriending the PR industry.

Last week, the company invited a band of PR professionals to its Palo Alto headquarters where members of Facebook's in-house communications team gave an hour-long tutorial on how the site's tool can help PR pros. A few days later, Facebook launched a separate PR page as a discussion board on the same topic. Within a week, it had over 6,000 fans.

“People are wondering where the next 500 million are going to come from,” said Gerard Corbett, CEO of Bay Area-based PR consultancy Redphlag.

The answer may be in tapping the sophistication and talent of Facebook's swelling communications team, and leveraging their platform explicitly to PR professionals.

“This is a natural evolution of the company,” said Jeremiah Owyang, a social media analyst at Bay Area research firm Altimeter Group. “Facebook knows there are a lot of brands within it that don't know what to do.”

Owyang said a deeper partnership with the PR community will encourage more brands, and users, to interact within the walls of Facebook, which leads to potential revenue opportunities.

“Facebook is still focused on growth,” said Daniel Sands, head of broadcast and digital services at PR firm Bite Communications. “They've staved off monetizing their platform until now.”

But gaining yet more users and increasing ad revenue is only one piece of the potential benefits of having the PR community in your corner. Facebook's corporate PR and image challenges have only risen as it has grown into a global brand, Corbett said, noting that the privacy issues surrounding users' information don't seem to go away.

“What better way to do that than to get the PR community on your side,” Corbett said.

Owyang points to the forthcoming Facebook movie, titled The Social Network, that's already garnering less than favorable chatter on the Internet. Directed by David Fincher and set for release in October, the movie documents the early days of the company and its founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“Facebook needs to continue to build relationships with the media, press and PR community as its every move is covered from a variety of angles,” Owyang said. “Early reviews indicate bad PR for the Facebook founder, so the faster it can develop communications outreach now the more it will help them tell their side of the story.”

So, the consensus is that wooing the PR community is a win-win for Facebook, but what's in it for PR agencies or communications professionals who use its platform?

“At the end of the day, Facebook is only a platform, but a really ubiquitous platform,” said Sands. “It's really compelling for PR. If you have 10,000 fans, that's 10,000 people you can talk to.”

But it works both ways and there are potential pitfalls as well as upsides to the social network. With 500 million pairs of eyeballs scanning the platform, it's also a place where a PR challenge can turn into a disaster.

Owyang points to the tagline of the movie:  “You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”

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