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5 lessons from the Facebook P.R. debacle

Facebook logoIt’s a cloak-and-dagger tech story. Recently Facebook hired Burson-Marsteller, a public relations company, to anonymously plant stories in the press critical of Google’s use of social network data. It didn’t take long for tech blogs to start wondering who was behind it. Finally, all hell broke loose Friday when The Daily Beast identified all the players in the secret campaign. Facebook and B-M each released short, embarrassed statements trying to save face.

Here are five communications lessons companies can learn from this fiasco.

1. You are a brand. You are not SEAL Team Six.

Facebook should have stuck with what they do best: satisfying customer needs. Instead they tried running covert ops, and failed spectacularly. The Facebook people who organized this leak assumed Facebook’s identity wouldn’t be disclosed. Their hand was forced when the P.R. company became inundated with a question they’re basically required to answer: “Who is your client?” Somebody failed to anticipate this outcome—because keeping secrets is not what Facebook does best.

2. Anonymous attacks backfire.

This lesson is similar to, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.” Facebook didn’t tell any lies, but their anonymous leak feels dishonest. If Facebook has a problem with Google—a larger competitor they ought to be fighting with every weapon they have—they should air it publicly. They could have come out of this looking like fighting underdogs, instead of like unsophisticated bullies.

3. Relationships matter.

Using your P.R. channels to pitch information to untrusted press contacts is the wrong way to leak information about a competitor. Facebook executives ought to have their own confidential relationships with journalists. An ongoing, two-way, off-the-record dialogue with influential reporters is a socially acceptable way to plant stories like this. Facebook’s ham-fisted handling of this story shows they either can’t exploit these connections or haven’t built them.

4. Ex-journalists don’t always make great P.R. people.

The two Burson-Marsteller reps who took the fall for this are both former journalists: Jim Goldman, formerly of CNBC, and John Mercurio, formerly of The National Journal. Did they fail to realize how graceless their behavior would appear? Did they assume nobody would call them out on it? Or did they take the risk anyway in the interest of pleasing their bosses? It’s a terrible performance any way you look at it. Someone with many years of P.R. experience might have less name recognition than these guys, but they would have known better than to step in this mess.

5. And finally… Social media privacy issues are insufferably boring.

Here’s what Facebook wanted people to be chattering about instead of its bad P.R. strategy: Google is scraping social networking sites, trying to match accounts to people who have Google logins, and adjusting its sites’ behaviors based on this dfnzznkvnbcmx. Sorry, I just fell asleep on my keyboard typing that sentence. The story Facebook was trying to plant was too boring to get any traction. Now a juicy media scandal—that’s something worth blogging about!

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Marketing, News & Journalism, Social Media, Technology

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