PR students map a path forward for Facebook

A Boston University crisis comms class chose Facebook as its focus. Here's what students thought Zuckerberg's company should be doing.

These ideas are from upper division undergraduate and graduate students at the Boston University College of Communication. Our crisis communications class chose Facebook as its focus for the fall 2018 semester. While it was a hellish year for Facebook, the unfolding crisis was a great opportunity for students to react in real time to new disclosures.

Facebook received a beat-down for its handling of privacy issues last year, and we do not write this to pile on. Instead, we are suggesting a few ways the world’s largest online networking service can rebuild trust with, well, just about everyone.

College campuses were Facebook’s original demographic and are still a key target. But today, students are rejecting Zuckerberg’s social network for various reasons. A Pew Research Center survey published last September found 44% of users aged 18 to 29 say they have deleted the Facebook app from their phones in the past year.

To understand one reason for this trend, consider this. Many students in the College of Communications echoed the comment of a classmate who said "Facebook’s strategy needs to focus on full disclosure rather than denial and deflection."

We want to make it clear that we know handling an all-engulfing crisis like this is not easy. Nuance gets lost as facts are crunched into cable TV graphics, snarky tweets, and political bloviations.

Our class discussions and this column are not meant as a judgment of the Facebook team. We simply wanted to learn from the violent collision between the demand for privacy and people’s interest in sharing their lives on a public platform.

To do this, for their final class project students wrote an apology from CEO Mark Zuckerberg (or another Facebook official) for the company’s mishandling of the Cambridge Analytica case and/or a cyberattack in which the personal data of up to 87 million users were exposed.

Students also developed a communications strategy centered on ideas to help the company earn back public trust and summarized the strategy in a press release. In our final class of the semester, we grouped the ideas into categories, with a few examples of specific ideas.

First, Facebook should put people over profits by doing four things. It should return to its mission of giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. As one student wrote, "An organization is nothing without purpose, and Facebook must remind users of its purpose...[which] wasn’t to make billions of dollars and sell data."

It should end the sale and trading of data until it can reasonably ensure it is safe. And it should establish a system allowing users to easily see and select the data that can be shared with advertisers. And four, it should appoint a chief societal officer responsible for moral activism and to ensure it is acting with a social conscious.

Next, Facebook should humanize its brand by establishing an "Open Book" initiative to open Facebook’s headquarters to the public and the media. And it should make it possible for users to have person-to-person connections with Facebook employees to address widespread frustration with the current self-service FAQ tree/community forum model.

Facebook should embrace the privacy challenge by partnering with U.S. regulators and legislators to adopt a version of Europe’s General Data Protect Regulation and/or supporting the Honest Ads Act of 2017.

And it should also stop its inside game of political lobbying game and instead be honest, forthright and unafraid of going beyond what is required of it.

One student wrote, "Until now, [Facebook] relied on legal requirements as a ceiling rather than a floor for our security and privacy protocol. If we don’t go beyond obligation to actual responsibility as caretakers, we will continue to meet controversies like the one in which we are currently embroiled."

Facebook should also appoint an independent ethics commission to investigate and act on ethical issues report the results to the public.

Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, most students felt he had lost the public’s trust and advised him to step down as CEO. They did, however, want him to stay on as chief innovation officer.

None of the students disagreed that Facebook is a great company that had simply lost track of its purpose. As one student put it, "Facebook wouldn’t exist without its users and their communities and [they] can’t forget that Facebook can be deleted as easily as it is downloaded."

Sarah Dasher, Joe Stewart and Gary Sheffer are part of the Boston University College of Communication: Dasher recently earned a master’s in public relations, Stewart is a junior public relations major; and, Sheffer is the Sandra R. Frazier Professor of public relations.

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