Saturday, April 08, 2006

Facebook + (No PR) = Car Crash

Facebook is an interesting phenomenon. It's a college-only social network -- oh, wait, college (but no junior colleges, and still some ignored colleges) and select high schools and some 8th grades -- that is supposed to connect college students that are on the same campus, and then extend that to other friends on other campuses, so you get the Breck shampoo effect (tell two friends, they tell two friends ...).

Now, I am not a big fan of Facebook. I have played around with it, and just do not get it. The GUI is nothing to write home about, there is very little customization or personalization beyond photos, the color itself does nothing for me. I always get the "but MySpace is ugly" response - to which I say "but at least MySpace pages are created by the users - so, yes, the amateur look might be ugly, but it's my own attempt at design and so, well, the kids aren't designers but it is their look." Yes, a long answer - but, one of the secrets of MySpace's success - your page truly becomes your page, with your own ugly (or pretty) design.

But, Facbook is an interesting phenomenon because it appears to be run by, well, college kids. Not that there is anything wrong with college kids, but watching how they deal with the media screams "amateur hour" and that it is time to bring in some adult supervision, particularly when it comes to PR and media relations.

Here's a little jaunt down bad PR lane, and how Facebook is just not getting it.

Example one: a series of USA Today articles, two on one day throughout the paper. Now, while any company would kill to have two articles in different sections (Front Page and Sports), you want those articles to be positive articles. These were not.

The front page article was about how what you put on your Facebook profile can come back and haunt you, as both employers and Universities begin to monitor. Well, that is just common sense, and something that most people should be aware about - including the "don't use work email for personal stuff" rule of thumb. While other journal sites were mentioned, the basic premise was that Facebook can be bad for your academic career.

The Facebook response: "People are learning how to use the site and what's OK to share," says Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. "As time goes on, people will learn what's appropriate, what's safe for them — and learn to share accordingly." In other words - we give no real guidance, but you'll learn through your mistakes. Thanks Mark!

The sports section article was about how athletes are being told not to use Facebook as it opens them up to too much. Some campus athletic departments have gone as far as banning it for athletes, and some athletes have been kicked off their teams - losing their scholarships - for posting nasty comments about coaches.

The Facebook response: "That would be like banning rock 'n' roll in the '50s," Facebook director of marketing Melanie Deitch says with a laugh. Yep, laugh at student athletes losing their scholarships, and them being banned from Facebook. Always the best strategy.

Example two: the $2B debacle. Company run by kids gets a $750M offer - supposedly more than once. Turns down offer because they think they are worth $2B. Site gets exposed as a straw man by well-known reporter/blogger smart guy, Om Malik ... twice. Lots of blog posts and stories about this, and I can only think of a couple jokes. First, you can tell a Harvard man, you just can't tell him much. And, second, these guys were probably in middle school during the dotcom boom/bust, so they missed out on a special word: schadenfreude.

The Facebook response: Not sure. Maybe it was having college kids post comments that Facebook is the bestest thing ever. Let me introduce you to a good 70's singer - Steve Miller - for some advice.

Example three: everyone writes about the safety issues with MySpace - the third article in the social triumverate in USA Today was about MySpace and children safety - but thus far, Facebook has dodged that bullet.

But, for how long?

Facebook is less safe than MySpace because of the false sense of security with a locked-down system. Because Facebook takes so much pride in its "private" network, members think they are safe and secure. And, then, share too much information on the network. With MySpace, at least, the members realize that it IS an open system, and anyone can see their profiles. That's why there are profile lockdowns, and some parental controls (like, well, parents should have a clue what their children are doing online). In college, you are away from such parental controls.

Plus, in essence, Facebook is a hooking up network. You find other collegiates to hook up with - socially or "socially." By opening the system to high school and 8th graders, in a way you are saying "okay, the guys that can't hook up with college girls, go for the high schoolers or 8th graders." We all remember those guys in high school - the losers in college that came back to hook up with high school sophomores? Well, now they have a better tool with Facebook.

I have heard of stalking cases via Facebook already. Guy shows up where girl is, because girl posts whole day schedule on Facebook. How soon before that goes beyond stalking to something worse? Facebook wraps itself in the .edu email system, but how hard is it as a 40 year old, or older, to go audit a course at a University and still get a .edu email address? So much for college-age kids only (which, of course, ignores the whole non-traditional student group on campus).

The Facebook response: I somewhat doubt that they know Crisis Communications 101, and I really hope that they do not need it.

This is not a Facebook only issue, but Facebook is the easiest example: too many companies in the Web 2.0 era think they can do PR themselves. Well, PR is not something that easy. It takes skill, it takes strategy, it takes a tactical mind - and it takes the ability to know when to plan for events, when to have messaging, and when to use them.

Is it too late for some, though? But, it's like a car crash - you just can't turn away from the carnage, but you slow down to take a look....
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