Should Facebook face some PR responsibilities?

Let’s get this straight – Facebook is a business, not a cuddly social network. Thomas Power (who presented at a recent MIPAA Business Academy workshop on the new PR Influencers) claims in his YouTube video it’s on the way to being bigger than Google and could even become a bank.

Power calls social media a name game, where the winner is the one with all the names.  Back in 2002, the United Nations identified that 29 of the world’s 100 largest economic entities were transnational corporations.  Last year, Fast Company magazine highlighted the size of Wal-Mart as the world’s biggest company.

Such “real world”, bricks and mortar organisations have been subject to much criticism and pressure on them to behave in a socially responsible way – and consequently they have employed PR professionals to integrate CSR into their business, or at least, attempt to manage their reputations.  But what about the newer social media giants?

What makes these guys different is that their power comes when you’ve “joined” their network – because it doesn’t feel like a basic transactional relationship that you might have with a goliath of a supermarket.  In Facebook, you’re just chatting with friends, playing at being a farmer or campaigning for some major or minor cause – aren’t you?

The message of Facebook is that it is:

Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected… Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them.

Whether Facebook or Twitter are your friendly SM hangouts or mega powerful databanks – their growth can be put down to media hype and word of mouth.  They used the power of the network to build the network (probably with a little media relations or promotional PR seeding).

But it is interesting to see the media start to turn, at least against Facebook.  So isn’t it time that it took more responsibility for its social role – and looked at the real value of public relations in the face of so many emerging issues?

There are complaints that it is ignoring child safety issues or leading them into Farmville debt – even that it’s causing parents to spy on their children.  Okay, so it’s easy for the media to begin to dump the world’s evils all at the door of Facebook. 

But when the site is being used to ask UK users if they’ve registered to vote, and the German government expresses concerns about the privacy of  400 million users – you can’t have all the names, without taking some responsibility.

To date, Facebook doesn’t seem concerned about managing its reputation – and maybe the fact that so many people (even those who should know better) using social media don’t care about their own reputation, makes the company feel invincible.

But as we all flocked to Facebook – and left Bebo floundering – isn’t its power only as strong as the network of names?  Like a tower of playing cards, couldn’t we bring it toppling back down, if the lack of responsibility outweighs the time-wasting delights it brings (as proven by Southpark in “You have 0 friends“)?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

13 thoughts on “Should Facebook face some PR responsibilities?”

  1. Excellent presentation of a complicated question.

    Let me play devil’s advocate here. Perhaps many isolated individuals find that Facebook, prima facie, does play a socially responsible role just by connecting them to distant relatives, old classmates, and forgotten former co-workers. Perhaps millions have found Facebook an easy way to make friends, explore relationships, and learn about the lives of people across the globe? Isn’t that a valuable addition to our society? Perhaps the social critics of Facebook need to modernize their traditional notions of socially responsibility for 21st century standards?

    And privacy, like so many other abstract notions undermining liberal democracies, might turn out to be less of a universal right and aspiration than assumed by many folks.

  2. Take away FaceBook’s closed platform and the knowledge that gives them about its users’ details and the business (in so far it is one) losses its value. I’ve argued on my blog that the social networks’ lofty valuations depend on maximising their page views—so they maintain a tight grip on their users’ information to ensure that they keep coming back. This is an unsustainable proposition. In short, there’s no social media revolution and BTW: some PRs are talking nonsense also about “value networks”, which I guess is their take on how SM changes things etc.

    Also BTW: social media, IT and the internet is most advanced in China today. That’s where the innovation and the money is (even Google couldn’t crack that one). The other place to look is South Korea and after that Japan. By comparison Facebook and Twitter don’t add much value and don’t point to the future of our online world. Moreover, old media are set to converge with new and to strike back. Much is happening, but most commentators can’t see the wood for the trees.

  3. Eric – I agree that Facebook etc can offer a social benefit to people, but I don’t think that equates to reflecting social responsibility. This is evidenced particularly when it comes to protecting children and selling our personal information. For the latter, I tend to think that it is up to us to take care and be aware of the fact that Facebook has this information – but also, there’s a difference between practices you may sign up to when joining and then decisions Facebook makes over your data at a later stage. Provided you can opt out or remove your profile entirely, then that should be okay – but data is an issue with all organisations these days. The matter over children is different – and all organisations should have moral or legal responsibility in this area.

    I think that privacy is being affected by technology in modern society – CCTV cameras, credit card payment tracking, shopping loyalty monitoring, DNA databases, identity card proposals, etc. But that doesn’t mean that we should just accept this. I think that the basis of “liberal democracies” has to be protected – at the least as a moderator on those people who feel citizens are theirs to control. I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t already happen, but we need to push back to at least remind them that there have to be some boundaries.

    Paul – not to go over old ground with you (which we’ve covered before), but one thing that I find interesting in terms of how PR folk are “evaluating” networks is the spurious methods that are replicating the old AVE nonsense. I’ve recently judged some award entries and see them citing reach of millions via social media. This just extrapolates or sums up connections (Friends, Followers etc) without any consideration that because I follow someone doesn’t mean I even read every post or comment they make. Likewise, reTweets don’t mean that the person RTing has even read the original and it could just be a chain of emptiness. But I suppose most clients know even less and accept these OTS the same as they do with MSM.

  4. Heather, Stuart Bruce was brilliant recently poking fun at AVE’s and SM:

    But I don’t think that we have discussed China, South Korea and Japan before. Their relevance to Facebook is that Facebook adds little of value; hence if its valuation depended on its earnings or even potential earnings it would be nearly worthless. But in China, South Korea and Japan there is real value in their SM system (not just clinging on to names, addresses and profiles) yet what’s going on there doesn’t mirror what’s being said by PRs on our side of the world regarding what the new social realities are all about. Facebook is a bubble (a modern-day pogo-stick phenomenon) but progress and real change needs a sustainable business model. There’re some big issues here which I say hardly ever get discussed by PRs yet…

  5. I’ve had discussions with a few people about how odd it is that companies send (potential) customers or other publics over to a third-party site, like Facebook. Even the TV advertisements seem to be doing that (if it’s not one for a bloody app for your smartphone); there’s a new one for (I think) Home Hardware that ends with “for more information on how to build these things, visit our Facebook page.”

    Why on earth would the huge hardware chain drive traffic over to Facebook, rather than its own website or social media platforms. Dumb marketing move, but nice public relations *for Facebook,* n’est-ce pas?

  6. Judy – that was one of the interesting things that Thomas Power said that stirred up the PR folk attending the MIPAA workshop. He asked them how many were on Facebook etc – lots of hands, then he looked at their sites and asked why you couldn’t “join” them. The attendees were confused and said why would anyone want to join a car website – they go there to buy cars. His point was very much about “owing” the customer on your site and building your own “network” – not least for the day when Facebook charges companies zillions to access their “own” data.

    I can see the argument for going where the customer is currently hanging out – but at the same time, why not go back to the principle of making your site “sticky” and have something that people want to “join”, especially if they’ve already made a commitment to spending a lot of money buying your car (for example).

    Organisations spend such a lot of money getting customers, that they seem to have forgotten how to connect and keep them engaged in aftersales, customer satisfaction, etc. Why just allow someone else to gain the vital connections?

  7. Facebook has emerged as a strong social platform in the online world. Most of us today boast of a social presence on Facebook. But the fact that cannot be neglected is that Facebook does not undertake any social responsibility from its side. You have hate pages on Facebook, personal information being hacked or leaked, etc. It is time Facebook should take charge of such situtions and set-up some strong guidelines.

  8. Ashwani – that’s an interesting observation. If Facebook were a real world organisation, it would be expected to take responsibility for what happened on its premises. Schools and workplaces can’t allow bullying, newspapers wouldn’t run hate letters, organisations are supposed to protect our data, pubs are prosecuted if drug taking is going on and so on. Interesting that online is seen differently.

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  10. You were right;; I was wrong.

    Facebook took some key words, created community pages around those key words, and reposted any articles – by anybody – that used those keywords. I discovered this when I posted a story on another “misunderstander of the religion of peace” behind another terrorist attack. Somehow, the article – which quoted the Times Square wannabe bomber explaining why he feel compelled as a devout Muslim to plan mass murder – reviewed the long litany of violent crimes by jihadist believers. Facebook took that article, along with my sarcastic comment and profile picture, and place it on a community page called Muslim. Consider me less than pleased. The only way to delete the community page was to delete the original article and my comment – leading to a profound example of self-censorship based on the fragile sensitivities of religious fanatics. And this is how a tool that could be an exceptional voice for free expression becomes just another bland corporate entity.

    Let’s just say that Facebook and social media remain evolving technologies, prone to tech-savvy shortcuts that may lack commonsense.

  11. Eric – thanks for coming back and I’m truly shocked by your experience with Facebook. I do appreciate that social media tools are in reality businesses, but there is still a level of social responsibility we should expect – maybe even more so if they are just another commercial entity. Agreed that the technology is evolving and that much automation is lacking in commonsense, but that seems to be increasingly what is being promoted as corporate communications – shortcut rather than using the media for engaging real person to real person.

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