The Facebook furore and crisis management

Unless you’ve been living under a very dense rock for the past few weeks (and who could blame you for wanting to?), you’ll no doubt have heard about the controversy surrounding Facebook and data firm Cambridge Analytica. It’s an ongoing issue, but we currently stand at a point where it shows us a lot about crisis management — as well as newsjacking.

By Thomas Roden, senior account executive

So, if you have been living under that aforementioned rock, we’ll quickly bring you up to speed. A data firm called Cambridge Analytica has been linked to numerous high profile political campaigns, such as Trump’s 2016 presidential bid and the Leave camp of the Brexit campaign. The company developed software that could target possible swing voters with messages to sway their opinion.

There’s nothing explicitly nefarious about that, except that Cambridge Analytica’s alleged co-founder blew the whistle on how data was obtained. The long story made short is that it was reportedly obtained through an exploit found in Facebook, leading to the data of more than 50 million people being harvested without consent or even knowledge.

While the issue continues to play out, the immediate actions of the companies involved give us a surprisingly complete overview of how businesses can manage crises. In fact, we’ve seen good, bad and misguided PR off the back of this.

The bad: Cambridge Analytica
Cambridge Analytica didn’t really have a strong position in this situation, so it would be difficult for any seasoned PR or marketing pro to handle.

The response from the company has been particularly interesting because, while it has actively reacted to developments with a series of reasonably well-messaged statements on the news section of its website, it has been overshadowed in the media. The controversy has pushed the company into the spotlight, but Cambridge Analytica has somewhat shunned it.

Without a strong face in the media representing the brand and spreading the company’s message, the only face generally associated with it is that of CEO Alexander Nix — a person who has been suspended following questionable clips broadcast by Channel 4.

Interestingly, a core component of Cambridge Analytica’s message is to discredit the whistle-blower by asserting he was a contractor at the firm for a year rather than a co-founder. So, it’s strange that the company’s lack of media spokesperson also means the whistle-blower’s narrative is the one dominating news coverage and undermining the company.

The misguided: Facebook
Facebook, caught in the middle of yet another privacy row, responded relatively well. Generally, the company cooperated with public officials in the US and UK who are opening enquiries into the social media giant’s handling of personal data.

Confusingly, Facebook’s latest approach at handling the situation has been to take out full-page advertisements in several UK and US national newspapers to share an apology. It could be argued that the apology offered by Facebook, perhaps the biggest social media platform, would have been more effective by also spreading it as a post on every user’s news feed.

This brings us to the modern marketer’s dilemma of knowing your target audience and identifying the best platform — be it print or digital — to reach them on.

The good: Mozilla
Not so much an example of effective crisis management, but rather of well-executed newsjacking. In the midst of the controversy and with user privacy at the centre of it all, web software developer Mozilla launched an add-on for it’s Firefox browser called Facebook Container.

The add-on aims to isolate a user’s Facebook profile from the rest of the web, cutting off the data that the social media platform can collect from a user’s web activity outside of the site. While it wouldn’t have been effective at stopping the data harvesting in the Cambridge Analytica case, it does address the immediate concern of users about what data Facebook holds on them. To that extent, it’s a wonderfully well-timed move.

It’s unclear where the overall situation will end up, but in the meantime it does offer valuable lessons to marketers besides the importance of checking data privacy settings.

If you’re having a few reputation issues or a publicity crisis, and you’re not from Cambridge Analytica, get in touch and we’d be happy to consult and work with you on the best course of action.

Thomas Roden

Stone Junction is a cool technical PR agency based in Stafford. We work for all sorts of businesses, with a particular focus on technology, technical and engineering companies. We like being sent cake and biscuits by clients, journalists and prospects.

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