Facebook's PR feels broken

Becoming the villain.

Ranjan here, writing about how Facebook’s communication operations feel completely broken and wondering whether the company’s rank and file are okay with becoming the villains.

Before 2019, it felt like the Facebook communications machine was a well-oiled, unstoppable juggernaut. Bad news bounced off of them, as they were frighteningly disciplined in how they responded to any inbound scandal. Margins' readers are probably familiar with the refrain:

We're sorry. We should've done better. We're working on it and improving every day. It's only “(tiny number) X” percentage of overall posts. AI. Machine Learning.

There were no leaks. No one ever broke rank. The messaging was crystal clear.

You had a few folks like @boztank, @robleathern, and @robgoldman independently engaging on Twitter a bit, but otherwise, the two words to describe it were coordinated and disciplined.

Then something happened. Zuck's congressional testimony in April 2018 was, I have to imagine internally at Facebook, considered a grand slam. It felt like a turning point for the camp that wanted to be more aggressive and “fight back”.

Then in November 2018, you had the Sheryl Sandberg - George Soros debacle, which was the first major blow to Sandberg’s perfectly cultivated image. Especially amongst my globalist, capitalist MBA crowd, she was a champion who could do no wrong. That aura forever disappeared.

The hits kept coming for Facebook, but something noticeably changed. They got combative. They got sloppy.

No Upside

The moment that really nailed it for me was when, in October, it came out that Zuckerberg hosted private dinners with folks like Tucker Carlson and Lindsey Graham. I don’t think that proved Facebook is a right-wing propaganda machine (which I don't think they are), but it was Zuck's response that just screamed the tightly run ship was approaching Titanic-level chaos:

Those last two lines. We all know that style of communication. Sardonic. Snarky. Sneering. Derisive. Whatever you want to call it, that mocking tone captures a dangerous combination of insecurity and arrogance. It feels like when Trump ends a tweet with SAD!. You read that and just think, what a dick.

But I'll let you, the reader, be a better armchair psychoanalyst. I'll just evaluate this from the communications side and say, I cannot believe that post was allowed to go through. There is simply no upside to bringing that attitude into the conversation. I understand Zuck is CEO, but how does that not get stopped somewhere along the line? His Facebook posts are official corporate publications. Are these posts even vetted any longer? Was there a room of people sitting around a big table who all nodded and said: “hit publish”?

One by one, the responses felt more disjointed. The tone became more combative and condescending, and we also began to see leaks, which were almost previously unheard of.

The Dam Has Broken

Which brings us to the past 48 hours. It just feels like the wheels have come off.

First, we had that leaked Boz memo. If you haven't come across it, read this NY Times coverage, but to summarize, Andrew Bosworth, longtime Facebook exec, wrote a long, reflective internal post on Facebook’s role in the 2020 election:

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.

In a section that got a lot of attention, he continued:

I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.

I'm not a big LOTR person, and will let Gizmodo cover the accuracy of his reference, but how does Facebook possibly let this enter the national conversation? One of their most longtime, loyal leaders is directly saying they have the power to sway national elections. It is their decision, and their decision alone, to resist the temptation to "change the outcome"!

This is the very definition of a need for regulation. By its own admission, the company is acknowledging its unnatural power. In the memo, Boz clarifies he’s liberal in his politics, but the issue is not Facebook and its purported ties to the right. The issue is simply its size. An individual, for-profit corporation should not get to decide whether democracy will work.

To continue on the communications breakdown, Boz posted an explanation on Facebook, where he advertises the post as an organizational, internal call-to-debate. But while it's great to have a safe space for internal, organizational debates, it's still hugely concerning when that internal debate is whether we should all have a free and fair election in the U.S.

Boz even posts the response and then indicates he will be offline for a few days, traveling to celebrate his birthday. Think about that. An executive at a $620 billion corporation that is facing an existential crisis is just brushing this off. I’m sure, internally, it’s looked at as the “mainstream media trying to get clicks”, but the issue at hand is the future of American democracy, and your memo about your role has just leaked. And you still go on vacation. Isn’t there anyone there left to ask, maybe stick around and handle this?

TEEN VOGUE-GATE

And then, finally, there was that Teen Vogue thing. This one might be a bit too insider-y media, but let me try to break this down, because, for a media people, this was just bananas.

First, the sequence of events (this Gizmodo piece is the best play-by-play):

  • Teen Vogue posted a very flattering article titled, How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election (for the unfamiliar, Teen Vogue has been doing some great political reporting and is considered a reputable platform for this type of story).

  • It was so egregious that people, right away, started questioning how objective could it really be.

  • Suddenly, a line appeared indicating it was Sponsored Editorial Content (meaning it was paid for by Facebook).

  • Then the line of it being sponsored disappeared, and it was attributed to a Teen Vogue journalist, who publicly denied having anything to do with it.

  • The article was then completely pulled from the Teen Vogue website.

  • Facebook stated that the piece was "purely editorial"

  • And then Facebook stated that it was part of a larger paid partnership deal (which involved sponsoring a conference as well).

For the media uninitiated, it's not at all uncommon for a media company to sell a "package" to a corporation, which could include items like "conference sponsorship" where you'll get your name up on a big sign and marketing collateral. That package could also include a few sponsored articles which would appear on the media company’s website, and maybe in print.

That is all totally normal.

But the thing everyone understands is you have to be very transparent when the post is sponsored, otherwise, the entire system breaks down.

I cannot begin to describe how amateurish this entire Facebook debacle feels. This stuff just doesn’t happen like this. Adding to the almost comical nature of the entire saga, "Sheryl Sandberg" posted about the Teen Vogue “article” to her Facebook page, playing it off as an editorial piece rather than something Facebook paid for.

Her post even remained up after the actual post was taken down from the Teen Vogue site for a bit.

I put her name in quotes because her post feels like some poorly coordinated PR process, where, in some queue, on some marketing SaaS, someone scheduled a Facebook post for Sandberg.

This is central to the entire breakdown I've been trying to capture from the beginning of this piece. When Sandberg was the public face, everything felt clear and consistent. Whether it was her, her team, or her "people" at Facebook, it felt, well, professional. Now, it feels like she's leaned out and only delivering the bare minimum, while Zuck has placed himself front and center. 

WHY THIS IS A BIG DEAL

This is a major negative inflection point for Facebook. The Teen Vogue incident might seem like insider-baseball for media folks, but the main evolution is that you now have "real" people who aren't normally at the forefront being exposed as villains. Not senior exec dudes who have already made tens of millions, but younger, motivated, folks who are used to being praised and celebrated being thrown into a negative limelight. Facebook’s rank and file are now having to deal with the shitstorm that was previously been reserved for higher-ups. 

You have someone like Antonia Woodford, rightly called out for the absurdity of saying to combat misinformation you should require “advertisers use their real identities”. She has Yale, McKinsey and a rapid rise at Facebook, on her resume. This is the profile of someone who I imagine isn’t wanting to bunker down in a Trumpian hole of calling everything critical: “fake news”.

It feels like finance in 2009.

One one side, you had smart, ambitious people who ended up there simply because you were told to go. On the other, you had the classic Gordon Gekko-ish types reciting Liar’s Poker anecdotes ad nauseam.

Enter the crisis and everyone was equally tarred as the bad guys. The former have slowly made their way out (mostly over to tech), while the latter remain, long immune to images of Vampire Squids and characterizations of douchebaggery.

This Teen Vogue incident is the first incident time where Facebook’s rank and file are seeing that they are the villains, and will increasingly become so. They’ll continue to use the bankers-circa-2009 playbook: blaming the media, retreating to a cocoon of co-workers and industry friends, and finally justifying why they were not specifically doing the bad things. But there is no longer a stable, disciplined institution behind them. It’s a free-for-all. 


Note #1: As I started writing the direct reference to one of the women involved, I felt a momentary apprehension. Was it somehow Gamergate-y?

But it presents an additional problematic dimension to the Teen Vogue piece. Five women were featured, in a company that is 64% male (with a leadership structure that looks like this). 

In a paid-for piece, where the corporation dictates who is featured, this is not pure luck. It’s, at best, trying to score diversity points, and at worst, using these women as human shields. Remember, when it came to finding people to have thoughtful, public discussions with Zuck, Facebook found almost all men. But when it comes to placing employees in a vulnerable public position, they found 100% women. Was that done to deflect potential criticism? That would not be my normal instinct, but Facebook, very effectively, used Sandberg in this capacity for years, conflating an attack on Sandberg's work as an attack on her Lean In brand of feminism.

Note #2: Okay, I had written all of the above before Thursday evening, and then came across the following tweet (now deleted) from one of the women featured: 

UGH! In just one tweet, it captures it all. She both injects the idea that criticizing the piece is “attacking women”, and then falls back on that tired Silicon Valley trope that the media covers Facebook “for clicks” (Note: I’m not writing this for clicks). More importantly, it’s shocking she ever tweeted this! One would think the moment this started blowing up, there would be a very clear directive on not engaging. Again, there is just no upside to this.

My final note: it appears Patterson was part of the Hillary 2008 campaign and then Center for American Progress, two very solid, left-leaning job experiences. And that’s again the key point. This isn’t left vs. right. This is Facebook vs. everyone else.