Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fun With PR - The Facebook Drama

One of the big stories in the world of marketing this past week was the news that Facebook secretly hired the PR firm Burson-Marsteller to promote negative stories about Google in the media. Not only was this good for at least four posts on Techcrunch, it was also an amusing conversation topic for friends and colleagues.

In some ways, it's rather surprising that it became such a big story. For many people I spoke with, the headline could easily be rewritten as, "Used Car Salesman Employs Questionable Techniques to Sell Crappy Old Car to Naive Customer." This isn't a Man Bites Dog story -- or rather, the PR aspect of the story isn't. For most of us, the amusing aspect of the whole thing is more of the meta-story around the story.
  1. Why would Facebook's team decide to pursue this type of PR strategy?
  2. What did they hope to accomplish?
  3. Why would Burson-Marsteller sign on for this gig?
  4. Where there the checks and balances that prevented this type of tactic from being employed?
As I don't work for any of the parties involved nor do I have direct contact with them, my guesses are all pure speculation. Here's what I think?

1. I suspect that this program is a product of younger, inexperienced staff. If you're thinking of your competitors as Yet Another Social Group in College, that might lead you to believe that seeding bad media coverage about that competitor may benefit your organization -- it's true for politics and it's potentially true for some percentage of social network users.

2. That's a good question and probably the fundamental one -- was this program and it's strategy well thought out? Perhaps this program was driven by someone more gifted at tactics and execution than strategy. Or, not knowing the internal politics, perhaps it was simply a petty, mandated swat driven by immature management element with the org.

3. Since they aren't Facebook's primary PR agency, I suspect that the team at Burson-Marsteller looked at this as a great foot-in-the-door opportunity for a lucrative, premier account.

4. This is sort of the surprising aspect -- that with all of the recent investment and the huge spotlight that Facebook has under, where were the checks and balances on this type of blunder? This wasn't simply a 'loose lips' slip of the tongue, this was a program that required budget and approval. Where was the oversight? If you think about it from an internal execution standpoint, it really makes you wonder not only how this type of program was justified and approved, but what that says about their internal operations practices.

Clearly, there's probably an interesting story behind the story, but it's one that you and I probably won't hear. Instead, it'll probably just be another one of those 'Can You Believe' stories by former insiders told over drinks in a post 'our time there' grumble session. Another day in Silicon Valley.

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