Is Facebook's public perception beyond saving?
November 14, 2019
Facebook really needs some good PR.
The tech giant has been in the news lately for its inclusion of far right-wing media outlet Breitbart on its “high quality news” tab; for the, uh, not ideal performance of its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, in Congress last month; and, of course, for continually forcing (“forcing”) us to click through an entire album of that girl we knew in high school’s gender reveal party.
Last month, Zuckerberg appeared in front of the House Financial Services Committee to answer questions about Facebook’s global digital currency initiative, Libra. In a perfect scenario for Facebook, Zuckerberg would have appeared warm, honest, and genuinely intent to answer lawmakers’ questions. He would have had good answers.
But what happened was far from that. The largest issue—and this is something that his prep team should have better prepared him for—was that lawmakers didn’t only want to talk about Libra. The questions pointed at Zuckerberg were wide-ranging: its discriminatory ad practices, child sex abuse content on the platform, data breaches, its role in 2016 and 2020 election interference, and whether Facebook should be broken up by federal regulators.
In response, Zuckerberg came off at times defensive, condescending, and uninformed. (Editor’s note: his eyes somehow evoked both a deer in the headlights and the blinking red eyes of a robot.) All of those factors meant that the performance wasn’t a PR win for Facebook, who faces plenty of hurdles for both Libra and for its ongoing operations.
Next in the line of bad press for the platform was its launch of the News Tab, a new news platform designed to quell concerns of rampant disinformation and devaluing of fact-based news on the platform. But its inclusion of right-wing site Breitbart on its list of “high quality news” stirred up more controversy because, well, it’s hard to make the argument that Breitbart is high quality news; the outlet has run headlines quoting high-profile individuals with things they never said (among many other ethical issues).
This bungled the launch of the news tab, creating controversy about the media when it was supposed to assuage criticism of Facebook by the media. While there are some PR practitioners who agree with the adage “all press is good press”, we say nah, dog. This rollout took away from an initiative that could have garnered genuinely good press for Facebook.
So where does Facebook go from here?
Well, for one, Zuckerberg needs some serious—deadly serious—media training in advance of future Congressional hearings. Better yet, send someone else—someone who doesn’t act like Optimus Prime with a Roman haircut.
But even the most charismatic person would need real answers to lawmakers’ questions, not the kind of sidesteps Zuckerberg opted for. Authenticity will do a person or brand big favors; people can tell when you’re being real or when you’re avoiding the question.
Lastly, Facebook needs to think hard about its role in our lives, in our democracy, in our world. If its current brand goals don’t align with the kind of world most of its users (and its regulators) want, then whatever it says publicly will be seen as out of touch with the way the world is moving.