Monday, March 26, 2018

On the Facebook PR crisis (and a re-edition of my 10 rules for PR damage control)

Suddenly, Facebook is in the eye of the storm. In case you have been living under a rock, it seems about 50 million profiles have been harvested and have been targeted with specific ads to sway their opinions in political matters (see full details here). The scandal is so enormous so much that #deletefacebook has actually trended on social media. Whether or not many people did delete their Facebook, the fact that this whole issue grew like a snowball is in itself worthy of notice.
Interestingly during the first days when the scandal broke, the Facebook higher ups - spcifically CEO Mark Zuberberg and COO Cheryl Sandberg (his sister) remained mum. Only several days later did the apologies and the Mea Culpas begin. But was it too little too late?
Well, managing a PR crisis is never easy. Here's my 10 rules for managing a PR disaster:
Artwork by Tarek Chemaly
My readers do not know this - for a long time - I have been in "damage control" to many clients. Naturally, clients never want to admit they are in "damage control" mode so most insert a clause of no-naming in the contracts, or it is agreed upon verbally.
I thought it was fun to share with you some tips of how to do that so as for you to know what goes on behind the curtains.

The first rule: Be polite.
You have no idea how far politeness would go. One of my clients had such a very very bad reputation, that I spent the first month earning my salary writing replies to his hundreds of Facebook notes which seemed to come from anyone who was able to type legibly or not.
"We know who you are and who is behind this" to which I would reply "thank you for your reply, if you wish to have additional information, please drop by our offices between such and such hour and ask for Mrs so and so". "You are thieves and liars" - the reply would be "thank you for your input! If you wish to know more about our finances, partners and supporters, we welcome you to our headquarters so as for you to check whatever figures you wish." And so on, endlessly, daily....
People were bewildered, the caustic attacks started to subside and the "likes" and support were growing steadily,

The second rule: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Yes, this is a bit like being polite, but it goes even further. It is about creating bonds with people, whether one knows them or not. With everyone being on social media, anyone thinks they are entitled to an opinion - whether informed or not. One of my clients had a nemesis, this girl, for no reason kept injecting sarcastic, derogatory comments about the client in question. Naturally, when I went to fix his reputation I noticed her several times a day comments, and answered each kindly, even establishing a bridge with her - "oh you are studying for your exams on this Sunday instead of going to the beach? We hope your tenacity will be rewarded!" - "We are sorry you feel insomniac, they usually say a cup of warm milk does it and you get back to sleep" and the examples continue.
Well, no matter the grudge she held on my client, it ended up calming down, but that was not the end of the tale. Me being me, I established such a strong rapport that I made her pop her birthday date. And what do you know? Right on the dot of midnight of the day in question, I sent a congratulatory email on behalf of my client to her. She was online wishing we would send her a note... Need I say what happened next? She became an unofficial spokesperson for my client and still is until today.

The third rule: If the carrot does not work, try the stick.
By stick I do not mean the mafioso gang at the end of the street, more like the "character assassination" kind. Unfortunately, rookies are sent to clean up messes these days and mistake character assassination with insults ("you're stupid", "you're obviously biased" etc...). Actually character assassination is more like the movie "thank you for not smoking". Something very subtle. It would be something like "I understand where you come from, but are you not the person who is being sued by your former employer for so and so charges?". It needs a lot of finesse to pull this off, but as I said, since rookies are being sent to the battle ground too many errors are being made. Which brings us to....

The fourth rule: Do not trip up.
In the very, very fast world of social media errors occur easily. One person who was defending a brand yet claiming not to be related to it, and in a tweet obviously fired too fast, revealed information that only an insider could have known. The person she was attacking was smart enough to point it out and suddenly the whole I-am-just-an-innocent-bystander-not-related-to-anything fell through the camouflaged attack by the brand turned into an ambush.

The fifth rule: When you are being offered an olive branch, don't use the pistol.
I am taking this analogy from the late Yasser Arafat at the UN - who did have the olive and the pistol. The idea is simple, when you feel you have made grounds, or the other person apologized even if vaguely, or that the airwaves have been cleared, don't stick to your grudge, be more cooperative so as to diffuse the crisis and let it slide even if your client was not completely cleared. People forget in the long run.

The sixth rule: Fake it till you make it.
If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. Try that for your client. Well, these days everyone uses bloggers as surrogates, offers them the same repeating points or sometimes the whole piece fully written with slight variations to make it look authentic. I am not inclined to use bloggers to be honest, as I still believe in the ethics of it being one myself. But of course, the client's facebook page, twitter account, could serve the same purpose. Come up with a few points of arguments and repeat them ad infinitum. They will stick.

The seventh rule: Rule the airwaves.
This was invented by a NATO general during the Kossovo war, whenever something would happen, he would be the first giving his version of the events on TV (CNN, BBC etc...). Whomever comes later with a different version seemed to be replying to him and therefore certifying what he said. So don't let your client shy off in the corner, come up with a fast version of what happened and plaster it early and everywhere. Everyone else will be backed into a defensive corner.

The eighth rule: Confucius
"You don't use a cannon to kill a fly" - said Confucius and this is a common mistake clients make. "Oh he/she called me so and so" - the "he" or "she" in question would be some small time blogger, some person who has few followers on social media. And making a fuss for such people, only gives them the interest they want. Frankly, try to reason with your client, and if you are the one handling the full account pick your battles wisely. Some people are not worth the ink - or the keyboard - you write with.

The ninth rule:  Do not take it personal
I know the "haters gonna hate" expression is usually used without proper context, but there is a grain of truth to it. People are online, most likely bored and frustrated from their dull lives, of course they are going to try to be snarky. Don't take it personal, it's all part of the game. Either ignore them or as indicated earlier befriend them smartly. People are people, take them for what they are.

The tenth rule: Not everything is urgent
Social media have made it look that everything is urgent, everything is in here, the now, so much people have forgotten long-term strategies. Cleaning up a mess is important, but unless the solution falls in line with some long-term strategy, I am afraid it would be pointless. "Walk, don't run" as the Camper Shoes slogan said, or the title of the Movie with Cary Grant did....

If mass online protests against Facebook did not move the needle for Mr. Zuckerberg, perhaps a 14% tumble in the price of the shares of his company, along with many class-action and state lawsuits could have done the job. It seems that, after the major hubris that resulted, Mr. Zuckerberg has published a full page "apology" of which here's the text:

"We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can't, we don't deserve it.
You may have heard about a quiz app built by a university researcher that leaked Facebook data of millions of people in 2014. This was a breach of trust, and I'm sorry we didn't do more at the time. We're now taking steps to make sure this doesn't happen again.
We've already stopped apps like this from getting so much information. Now we're limiting the data apps get when you sign in using Facebook.
We're also investigating every single app that had access to large amounts of data before we fixed this. We expect there are others. And when we find them, we will ban them and tell everyone affected.
Finally, we'll remind you of which apps you've given access to your information — so you can shut off the ones you don't want anymore.
Thank you for believing in this community. I promise to do better for you.
Mark Zuckerberg"