Facebook's PR tactics are a case study on how not to behave

Facebook's opacity and its contradictory posturing are counter to the ethos of savvy crisis managers, says Peter Himler, founding principal Flatiron Communications.

Nicholas Confessore, one of The New York Times’s better-known investigative reporters, appeared on MSNBC’s "All in with Chris Hayes" within hours of The Times publishing a bombshell exposé on how Facebook dealt with the Russian crisis. The story was aptly titled "Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis."

The verdict: FAIL.

After six months of reporting in which five Times journalists interviewed more than 50 people in and outside of Facebook, it was clear the company — and specifically Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg — had disregarded the core tenets of crisis PR.

Rather than coming clean quickly with the facts as they knew them and when they knew them, the Times alleged that Facebook’s leaders purposely misled the public and its own board to downplay the depth of the Russian breach of its global social influence platform.

When that failed, Facebook retained a GOP-skewed public affairs firm Definers Public Affairs to curry favor with the Republicans now running Washington. Definers created a disinformation campaign targeting detractors through content posted to its owned "news" site, which right wing "news" sites then amplified.

In his MSNBC appearance, Confessore categorized Facebook’s moves under the "PR" umbrella, as if this sort of behavior is standard industry practice. It isn’t. Facebook’s opacity in addressing its mounting crises and the company’s contradictory internal and external posturing goes counter to the ethos of savvy crisis managers.

Not unexpectedly, many influential media and tech pundits, including Recode cofounder Kara Swisher and media commentator and NYU professor Jay Rosen, were aghast at the revelations in the bombshell Times report and publically said so.

Within 24 hours, Facebook took five actions: it refuted the Times article on its website; served up Zuckerberg to reporters; issued a statement from the board of directors; fired Definers (of whom Zuckerberg denied knowledge) and established an independent oversight body to review content.

But the damage was done. Facebook’s stock tanked and, more importantly, so did its already sullied reputation.

Since that initial fire drill, Facebook has ratcheted up its PR offensive. But rather than express contrition, it doubled down on the denials in exclusive sit-down TV interviews (a strategy PR pros have long used in exchange for more favorable coverage). It didn’t work, judging from at least two of the subsequent headlines.

"As problems pile up, Zuckerberg stands his ground in exclusive CNN Business interview" read a headline accompanying an interview with Zuckerberg on the web page for the CNN’s program, The Human Code. "Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg to CBS: "We absolutely did not pay anyone to create fake news," read another headline above a similar interview with Sandberg on the CBS "This Morning" web page.

Separately, the company served up Alex Stamos its former chief security officer, for an op-ed in the Washington Post, where he again tried to spin the Russian attack as an industry issue.

And finally, in one of the company’s most audacious moves, and on Thanksgiving eve no less, Facebook’s soon-to-be former head of communications and policy Elliot Schrage fell on his sword and posted to Facebook’s blog an explanation and rationalization for hiring a firm whose nefarious tactics are counter to PRSA’s code of ethics. On the blog Schrage admitted to targeting George Soros and others.

It only raised more questions from reporters and critics and prompted this unusual headline and story in the Times: "On Thanksgiving Eve, Facebook Acknowledges Details of Times Investigation."

The timing of the mea culpa is indicative of how Facebook’s PR operations have worked. It attempted to exploit the public’s inattentiveness during a holiday to sublimate the damage Schrage’s revelations might create.

Reading The Times’s meticulous reporting, it’s clear Facebook’s handling of this crisis will serve as a case study on how not to behave. Media manipulation should never usurp a company’s values and mission.

Confessore noted as much during a Times podcast: "Confronted with a scandal that they [Facebook] have enabled propaganda to overrun their platform, they turned to a PR firm to generate propaganda for them," he said.

I only hope that in the age of Trump, others seeking a crisis PR playbook will discount the short-sighted PR tactics Facebook has deployed. Journalists, and the public they serve, simply bristle if they sense they’re being spun.

That said, this chapter in Facebook’s crisis PR journey is not yet fully written. NBC recently reported that Sandberg, who last week said she hadn't known about the work of Definers, has admitted emails referencing the firm had crossed her desk.

If there’s any consolation for Facebook, it’s that some new national outrage will probably displace the company’s latest scandal in our unrelenting news cycle. Then, of course, there are the likely impending regulatory and legislative battles for Facebook — both here and abroad.

Peter Himler is the founding principal of Flatiron Communications LLC @peterhimler

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