A bad PR week for Facebook: Lessons learned

By now, I am sure you are familiar with the story of the Facebook executive who went rogue after news of the recent Mueller indictments broke. But if not, here is a brief recap.

On February 16, special prosecutor Robert Mueller announced the indictment of 13 Russian operatives for meddling directly in the US election. The indictment included several references to Facebook and, more specifically, discussed how the platform was manipulated to sow discord and influence the vote in an already hyperpartisan environment.

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Several hours after the indictment was announced, Rob Goldman, VP for ads at Facebook, shared his thoughts on Twitter about what the indictment means for Facebook and how it sheds light on the Russian meddling.

Goldman noted that the “majority of the Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election,” conveniently ignoring the much more extensive impact of posts by Russian-controlled accounts leading up to the election, and concluding that the goal of the Russian operatives was primarily to create disharmony and not to sway the election. He then added that “very few” media outlets have covered this angle because “it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Trump and the election.”

For a representative of a company to weigh in publicly – and inaccurately – on such a politically charged topic shows poor judgement. However you might view the impact of Russian interference on the election outcome, I think most of us can agree it’s risky for an executive representing a global enterprise to weigh in and try to spin the news in a particular direction. It’s even less defensible when you consider that Goldman works for the company whose core platform is at the center of the debate.

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Still worse for Facebook, the following day Donald Trump leveraged Goldman’s tweets to support his own argument that the Russian operation had no impact on the results of the election. Suddenly Goldman’s already-questionable comments had been co-opted for political objectives and faced a new level of scrutiny that few had anticipated or expected. Needless to say, chaos ensued, and the company was forced to backpedal.

From a PR perspective, Facebook has been under siege in recent months for its inability to control the spread of fake news and limit its impact on public opinion and perceptions of issues and candidates. In response, the company has invested considerable time and energy in rebuilding its image with the public and establishing the political neutrality of its platform.

In addition to finally acknowledging the extent of the fake news issue, the company has begun to take steps to combat the problem—although the success of those efforts to date is debatable. Facebook has also cooperated fully with Mueller’s investigation, a fact that got lost in the media storm following Goldman’s tweets. No doubt, the communications team at Facebook had hoped the media narrative following the indictment announcement had focused on the company’s cooperation with authorities.

This episode is a great example of why developing a controlled and coherent company narrative in response to news developments is crucial, and why it’s even more important to ensure all employees understand and reinforce the narrative, whether in good times or in times of crisis. In today’s world of social media, it is all too easy for employees to go rogue. Just about everyone is on social media and everyone has an opinion. But when it comes to topics that significantly impact a company’s image – and particularly where politics are involved – there must be clear guidelines on what can be said and by whom.

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Many people working for high-profile brands include a caveat when messaging on social media that all thoughts and opinions are their own. That may be helpful from a legal perspective, but from a PR perspective it’s naïve to think those messages will not be associated with the brand. After Goldman’s tweets, Facebook had to disavow his statements and convince an already skeptical audience that they did not reflect the company’s views. A chastened Goldman eventually apologized and has subsequently said nothing more on the topic.

I’m certainly not suggesting that individuals should always refrain from expressing their personal views. But context is everything when it comes to corporate communications. Rob Goldman’s Twitter account clearly identifies him as “VP ads @facebook.” His opinions voiced through that account will, fairly or not, be automatically identified with the company responsible for the proliferation of much of the Russian propaganda that is the focus of the Mueller investigation.  The Wired article on the incident noted that “Goldman’s mistake was a familiar one for Silicon Valley: An executive really smart at one thing seemed to think he was really smart at another thing.”

Incidents like these illustrate why companies have communications teams, and why we should listen to them. Communications professionals can help “really smart” people foresee the potential fallout of their public statements and refine language to avoid the kind of media storm we saw in this case. Live and learn.