The latest Facebook bad news story poses a deeper challenge for the public relations industry

Robin Campbell-Burt – Director at Spreckley 

This week the New York Times published a hefty feature on Facebook and how the company behaved on issues ranging from Russian interference in the US election to the misuse of personal information by Cambridge Analytica. It also revealed how Facebook used Definers Public Affairs to throw muck at people Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t like very much.

Definers’ approach is to bring political campaigning into the corporate world. They seek to use opposition research – the polite term used in politics for digging up dirt on the other side – and to deploy it in corporate environments. The goal is to “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content pushed out about your competitor”.

In the case of Facebook, they used Definers to make suggestions of financial links between George Soros and Freedom from Facebook – a campaign group trying to limit the power of Facebook and, according to the campaign’s website, to “make it safe for our democracy”. This led to strident criticism from Patrick Gaspard, President of Soros’ Open Society Foundation, stating in a letter to Facebook:

“As you know, there is a concerted right-wing effort the world over to demonize Mr. Soros and his foundations, which I lead—an effort which has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’ home. You are no doubt also aware that much of this hateful and blatantly false and Anti-Semitic information is spread via Facebook.”

“These efforts appear to have been part of a deliberate strategy to distract from the very real accountability problems your company continues to grapple with.”

Let’s just think about the concept of opposition research and bringing political communication into the business world. America, and increasingly other countries, are some of the most polarised political landscapes on earth. In large part because of the black and white approach to what goes for debate in the modern world. Such an approach creates a zero-sum game in communication. You and your supporters are always right. Others are always wrong and a bit shady. Why on earth would we want to bring this negative, polarising mindset into business discourse?

The reality is that most people in business are trying their best to do the right thing. However, they sometimes fail because they are so focused on their goals that they neglect to understand the wider consequences of their actions. It is the role of the free press to shine a light on behaviour and to ask the questions that keep those with power on the right road.

Public relations comes in for quite a bit of stick. However, my experience has been that journalists are pretty good at holding corporations to account. Public relations specialists help to smooth the process of businesses needing to say mea culpa, understand where they got it wrong and to move on – making the necessary changes to how they operate. Yes, companies aren’t beyond trying to say things to minimise negative coverage about themselves. But the press and the public aren’t idiots and they know a face-saving statement driven by guilt at being caught out over an issue when they see one.

What has got Facebook into hot water is that by hiring a company to bad mouth other organisations, they have made themselves the story. By trying to muddy the waters and confuse public debate, they have been too-clever-by-half and been caught out. One has to ask the question why they did this? If a company is committed to doing the right thing, then it should not matter what other organisations are doing. Business leaders should focus on keeping their own house in order.

Business needs to stay above mud-slinging and the creation of such black and white arguments. The only outcome to taking an approach like this will be a collapse in public trust in businesses and how they operate. And while this evolving mud-slinging behaviour seems to be currently concentrated in some large corporations such as Facebook, the approach could easily infect the wider business community and risks becoming common practice in the corporate world.

The actions of companies like Definers Public Affairs steps over a line. Companies should stick to the facts. They should be honest about their behaviour and respond in a reasonable way when the press holds a light up to their actions. That is the behaviour of an honest, and ethical business. Take note Facebook.