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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

Facebook’s PR Machine is a beast!

(I had to get that out of the way to prove that I’m not a hater despite some of the critical things I may write in the following paragraphs).

Never have I seen a media relations assault like the one I witnessed in the last 3-5 months, nor have I seen this kind of quality cumulative media coverage like that amassed by Facebook’s communication apparatus. The vast majority of the coverage could only be described as positive. One friend on Twitter even remarked that onslaught of coverage dedicated to the social media platform put you in the frame of mind of a new start-up just being introduced to the masses for the first time, not the behemoth that already dominates most people’s internet use.

Last night, before I settled in to watch President Obama do his Rat Rack, Dean Martin governing thing, I happened upon a new CNBC investigative report, “The Facebook Obsession.” I couldn’t help but wonder about the timeliness of this program as well as its central premise.

Surely, with 600 million worldwide subscribers this isn’t going to be news to anybody on this planet. We all pretty much know that it’s a popular site and lots of people can’t do without it, despite the trouble it may get them into. To borrow from an old cable program, it’s “Not Necessarily the News” right?

But then it hit me, that damn Facebook movie is probably driving this or at minimum has something to do with it.

Recently, the Hollywood adaptation of Facebook’s genesis story, “The Social Network” was in the news for owning the top spots at the Golden Globes. And now the likelihood is great that it will do the same at the Academy Awards.

Facebook’s CEO and Founder, Mark Zuckerberg, HATES this movie regardless of his nonchalant posturing and constant pretending that it’s no big deal. In reality, when it comes to this movie, “The Social Network” is like that splinter in the mighty lion’s paw. It won’t kill him, but it smarts like hell.

Originally when news about the making of this movie first began to surface, Facebook appeared to do as most large companies do when faced with something unfavorable, they ignored it, labeled it as a nothing and hoped it would go away. But a funny thing happens when you base your strategy on “hope” and don’t have a workable crisis communications plan in place, eventually you find yourself in a spot where all hope is lost.

Unfortunately, for Facebook, great screenplay + great director = Hollywood smash! “The Social Network” became such a big box office hit that Facebook could no longer ignore it. I’ve seen the movie and I thought it was excellent regardless of the subtle creative liberties the screen writer and director took. By all researchable accounts the vast majority of the film was based on court transcripts and firsthand accounts of people who were there and part of the story.

The real problem Facebook had with the film was that in addition to some of the creative liberties taken, the movie made Zuckerberg come across as some sort of socially inept, douchey dickwad genius. And that was unacceptable. The empire had to strike back.

Now before I get into the dynamics of how Facebook struck back, I’ll offer what my counsel would’ve been, had I been in the PR war room – Control the narrative and own the story! Being on the defensive when it comes to PR is operating from a position of weakness, but deflection…ah.

I wholeheartedly believe that Facebook could’ve mitigated the potential negative attention from the movie through deflection. What would’ve been wrong with Zucks and Facebook “bigging up” the film by indicating to the press that it’s kind of cool to have a movie made about your life and company? They could’ve even talked about all the things the movie got right and fondly reminisced about the good times of the early days during the many interview requests around the launch of the movie.

Team Zucks could’ve even hosted some sort of premiere event for the movie (besides the uneventful renting out of a theater for staff and then going out for Apple-tinis) and then doing a light presser afterwards to playfully point out some of the inaccuracies, all the while praising the writing and performances. Or at a minimum Mark Zuckerberg could’ve showed he was a good sport by attending the actual premiere for “The Social Network.” All of these tactics would’ve gone a long way in killing any negative coverage in its infancy.

Instead, Facebook took the “too cool for school” approach of trying to cast the movie off as being some lame fictional account not worthy of commenting on…that was until it took over the U.S. movie market and hundreds of thousands of Facebookers began to take the story depicted as the absolute gospel. Then Facebook wanted to do something about it.

The best defense is a good offense. - Vince Lombardi.

With every media outlet on God’s green earth writing glowing articles about “The Social Network” Facebook decided to come out swinging. It appeared that they tackled this issue from a two-pronged approach: dispute the accuracy of the movie on the one hand and push out as much news and company stories as humanly possible in a short period on the other. Their mission was crystal clear – dominate the news cycle and make people forget about….what’s the name of that movie again?

With “The Social Network” genie out of the bottle, Facebook and an army of third party evangelists took to the offense to challenge the movie’s characterization and push back on the inaccuracies. Of these third party evangelists none were more visible and vocal than resident fan boy and author of the book, The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick. His purpose was simple, tout Zuckerberg's coolness and denounce this movie at every available opportunity.

The strategy seemed to work as Facebook and others took to print and the airwaves countering Zuckerberg’s movie portrayal, by painting the picture of him as a cool confident ladies man that had a lot of friends and was extremely at ease in social settings. Zuckerberg even started doing a bunch of personal interviews (something he normally would’ve been reluctant to do) to show people the “real” him. All of this for some lame fictional movie.

I knew PR was at play when I began to see all this coverage and the same talking points were repeated over and over again:

  • Zuckerberg has lots of friends
  • Zuckerberg is not an introvert
  • Zuckerberg has a hot Asian girlfriend that he’s been with for years
  • Women in general like Zuckerberg and he’s never had a problem getting a girlfriend
  • People generally like Zuckerberg and they think he’s cool
  • Zuckerberg didn’t care about college clubs
  • Facebook wasn’t built to meet girls or make money
  • Facebook is a passion for Zuckerberg, something bigger than a revenue generator

I've never seen someone get so rankled by a "fictional characterization" before and combat it so vehemently (ah shucks Zucks). But it was working.

Additionally, Facebook began to announce a new feature or product almost weekly. And when they weren’t pushing Zuckerberg in front of the media and announcing a new feature or product, they were announcing donations. Facebook bombarded the media with about a year’s worth of positive news stories (for some companies) and squeezing it all into a half of year time frame. But it wasn't easy given all of the energy Facebook had to exert all in the name of reputation management.

Eventually, “The Social Network” was knocked right out of the news cycle and left the public consciousness all together (that was, until it came time for award recognitions). Everything said about Facebook in the media since then has been a positive reflection of the company, its mission and its leadership. From a PR standpoint I had no choice but acknowledge their skills and the combat job they did in the press. Most people, me included, now view Zucks as somebody you’d want to have a beer with.

But much like the villainous Empire in George Lucas’s hit trilogy, the Death Star has a weak point and Facebook’s is user privacy. Stay tuned to see how the vaunted Facebook PR Team handles this rebel challenge.


  1. I thought right away that Zuckerberg should have created his own public profile, instead of trying to alter the one that the movie created. It would have allowed people to gain a sense of who he was prior to the release.

  2. Jay your thinking is right on. There's definitely a right way and wrong way to have handled this situation.