Opinion

Facebook’s PR company shouldn’t be exempt from smear campaign criticism

While Facebook took the brunt of the pushback on reports it had hired a PR company to smear its critics, it's worth remembering that the PR company itself shouldn't be exempt from the criticism.

The world has just watched Facebook plunge into yet another reputational crisis – this time denying and then admitting it hired a PR company to smear its critics. But was the campaign itself fundamentally flawed?

According to a New York Times investigation, Facebook commissioned Republican-aligned PR company Definers to smear billionaire George Soros, who has been a very outspoken critic of Facebook and Google. They also reportedly generated scores of stories and posts critical of tech rivals Google and Apple.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg denied any knowledge of the campaign and sacked the PR company the day after the New York Times report. COO Sheryl Sandberg also tried to walk away from the debacle, but later admitted she had forgotten that material about Definers had “crossed her desk.”

Then outgoing Facebook head of policy and communication Eliott Schrager took responsibility for the company’s action. “I knew of and approved the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here… Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy.”

Without controversy? Some hope, given the company’s previous scandals. In the wake of incidents like the massive Cambridge Analytica data privacy breach and Facebook’s failure to manage Russian use of the platform to interfere in elections, the news media response was swift and savage.

“Delay, deny and deflect: How Facebook’s leaders fought through crisis” (New York Times)
“Facebook comms head admits hiring PR agencies to discredit critics as horror year continues” (Mumbrella)
“Heads ought to roll at Facebook over the Soros smear – starting with Zuck’s” (Business Insider)

Yet, while Facebook is an easy target for just about everything that’s wrong with social media, what about the PR company which so enthusiastically implemented the strategy?

For its part, Washington DC-based Definers Public Affairs said they were proud of their partnership with Facebook and that: “All of our work is based in public available documents and information.” Which may be true, but is pushing negative stories about other tech companies and about Facebook’s critics legitimate issue management? And does it help the reputation of the public relations?

Bear in mind that all of this comes just over a year after one of the biggest scandals to rock the PR industry. In September 2017 the major British outfit Bell Pottinger was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) after being found to have breached the industry’s ethical standards over a campaign to stoke racial tension in South Africa. Bell Pottinger suffered eight million pounds worth of client losses within 48 hours and soon collapsed into bankruptcy.

Although the usual consequence of an ethical breach is seldom so brutal, the reality is that the Facebook smear story is not just about a tech company under intense pressure.

It’s also about what is acceptable behaviour by communicators. The PRSA code of ethics says: “A member shall preserve the integrity of the process of communication.”

The IABC code starts by saying: “I am honest – my actions bring respect for and trust in the communications profession” and the PRIA code says: “Members shall avoid conduct or practices likely to bring discredit upon themselves, the Institute, their employers or clients.”

The lesson here is that while critics may say industry codes of practice can be toothless, they are a pretty good basis for how issue and crisis professionals should behave.

This piece first appeared in Tony Jaques’ Managing Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.

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