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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11 comments

  1. Before Facebook turned down a $750 million dollar deal to try to get $2 billion dollar deal - I had not heard much about them. Now I hear about them all the time. It seems to me that since Facebook has gotten money hungry - the press and the blogosphere have been doing more to expose their decision to turn down $750 mil, along with further exposing all of the risks associated with social networking. I think that Facebook needs to take the money and run before it’s too late because it seems like the bad press is only piling up.

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  2. I have a Facebook, but that shouldn't be a surprise. I'm in college and I like to try all the little goofy sites they come up with at least once.

    I'm not so big a fan of Facebook as I am MySpace. Sure, I get more bizarre messages on MySpace than I do on Facebook, but there's something more appealing about MySpace. I agree with the personalization and customization points you made. I like a bit of self-expression and I am drawn more toward the service that can provide.

    Facebook has become a very big issue on campus. Some staff have joined and some student leaders have gotten in trouble, whether this was because their words were misconstrued or seriously vulgar and threatening, I don't know.

    I know from being in a sorority, that we have taken steps in recent months so others do not get the wrong idea about us. Gone are the drunk pictures, the suggestive groups, and other various wordings. All it takes is for one person to go to our National office and complain. We don't want to risk that. Unfortunately, it seems that we're the only Greek group on campus to take precautionary measures. We even were setting up, at one point, a presentation to educate the campus community about the dangers of Facebook and how content can reflect badly on the individual and the university.

    I would say I'm shocked that these kids who are running the site do not have more tact, or an official spokesperson, but from the issues that have arisen nowadays, I'm not really surprised. When you personalize your settings to friends only, you do think there is some sort of security involved. Yet the areas where you enter very personal information (telephone, address, etc.) are a dead giveaway that those security comforts may not hold up for long as that information can always fall into the wrong hands.

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  3. I was reluctant to join Facebook, sometime last year when my school hopped on the bandwagon--sort of like my resistence to some technology that i cannot live without. People now joke they are "addicted" to Facebook.

    Why do I like Facebook, but have no interest to join MySpace? My simple answer--making me seem half my age and probably a little psycho--is its fun to "stalk" people. Not literally, but it is how so many of my peers find out something about someone. That is, where they are from, who they are dating, what their political views are. Some people have cultured friendships through Facebook. Yes, some might take it to the next level, but that's why I dont have my cell number posted or my home address. Duh.

    MySpace is everywhere now, being lauded for success and criticized for the risk posed to young teens. It might be lame (I justify Facebook as the connection through school), but it is huge for PR, creating buzz and finding out what's cool. Facebook does some advertisements and I suspect they'll up it in order to compete with Mr. Murdoch's blue ribbon.

    There are risks involved, yes. For the youngsters, that's an issue of parental control. For the college aged and up, it just takes common sense to decide if you're making yourself look bad or putting yourself in harm's way.

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  4. I've been around Facebook for a while now, probably since it began. In the beginning it was innocent, just kids looking at other kids' profiles. I probably check facebook twice a month now. Through little circles I've heard of small cases of "stalking" or "shady" business going on. But, overall, I think it's a good thing. It's a great networking tool. Throughout the day you hear little tidbits of information about people and when you want to remember what they look like or where they're from you go Facebook them. For instance, recently I heard of a terrible car accident involving a girl from Auburn. She was apparently friends with some of my friends. So what did I do to place a face with the name? I facebooked her. Everything has negatives. The world will never be perfect. Let's look at the good things about Facebook before we spend our time bashing it. Everyone talks a big game about Web 2.0 and social networking, but when something interesting pops up, we're so quick to gripe about it. Make up your mind. Do you want social networking via the web or not?
    -Jonathan

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  5. Blake - even though you aren't that far out of college, I think the two of us missed this phenomenon. I looked at it from a PR standpoint, after playing with the service and just noticing that the PR doesn't add up.

    Jenn - you guys should give that presentation to the IFC/Panhellenic group at your university. You guys have been forward thinking, realizing that photos and pics and posts can come back and hurt you in your career search.

    Casey - you bring some maturity to the discussion, because you are not posting your personal information. I think it's less stalking, though, and more voyeuristic to see what friends and crushes are doing - but think of that crush that gets a little too fanatical. That's my issue and concern, and from a crisis standpoint, I doubt that Facebook is up to that PR task.

    Jonathan - I have nothing against social networks. Heck, this blog has turned into a social network itself, where I have met great people in PR and great PR students (including those from your school). Social networks, Web 2.0 and all that stuff are important and are moving things forward to a true globalization - not companies, but people. My post is more about the failurs in Facebook's PR, and that it might be time to bring in some grown-ups. Facebook serves a purpose, but there are problems that need to be addressed in a mature way - and that's not happening.

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  6. Facebook started out as a social network for college students to keep in touch with those whom they graduated with. This is what it started as, now it is a way for students to post less than tasteful pictures and exploit themselves by the debacles of the weekend.
    As a college student I fell into the infamous Facebook trap, but I am now able to catch my breath. Being a PR student, I have had the opportunity to see this social network for what it really is. You see, students love this. They love the immediacy of the gossip. It is easier than picking up the phone and more personal than an e-mail.
    Businesses see this as an advertising gold mine. It does not cost that much to place an ad on Facebook to this obvious captive audience.
    I fear for those who see Facebook (and MySpace for that matter) as a way to communicate like a blog. Blogs and other social media networks take creativity and thought, like you said Jeremy. I myself am working hard to get respected as a blogger and when I graduate, I want people to see me as someone they respect and see me as a colleague. I do not in any way want to be seen as someone who just cannot leave those "college days" behind. This is where the problem lie.

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  7. I worked on a college newspaper, which I notice has been gradually adding archived articles from the 1980s. So even stuff that I was writing before the World Wide Web existed is posted and searchable for all the world to find.

    Just another example of your actions and writings becoming part of a permanent record that gets linked to your name.

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  8. Jeremy-

    I knew I recognized your name! Now I understand your question in the interview about Facebook :)

    I have been logging onto your blog for quite some time.. didn't make the connection over the phone. I had read all of your interviews. I think you have some of the best industry interviews around.. great advice.

    Small world!

    Erin

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  9. Oh the Facebook. Who would have thought that such a simple concept could catch as much attention and publicity as the Facebook? It still blows my mind.

    As a college student, yes, I have a Facebook account. Facebook came around during the beginning of my junior year and then it was a simple, stripped down version of the Facebook now. When Facebook first came out, it was all the rage. Who could have the most friends? Who was/wasn't friends with whom? Who had the best picture...you get the point. Then it was easy, fun and lighthearted. Now, I feel like Facebook is in a competition with itself to see just how much information it can get out of people. Currently, Facebook allows users to type in exactly what they are doing and where they are doing it at, and allows users to login to Facebook from his/her cell phone.

    Now, while I think this is a little crazy (and kind of stalker-ish) that people would want to volunteer that much personal information, being our age, I would hope that most people would understand the dangers in doing that. At our age, you are old enough to understand the consequences. However, 8th graders are not and options like these above should not be offered to them.

    On the subject of sororities and fraternities monitoring Facebook, Jenn's is not the only one that is concerned. My sorority monitors Facebook accounts and does not approve of posting pictures of drunkenness, etc.

    At this point, I hope that everyone who is on Facebook realizes that potential employers look to Facebook now and one's account could literally make or break you for a job.

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  10. One way to stir up a group of college kids...start a discussion about Facebook! Now, to truly understand Facebook, you have to be a facebooker. It's kind of like those who use Macs over PCs, or the exclusive group of people who drive the Jeep Wranglers and have that "Jeep wave" thing they do in passing. We, the Facebook generation, all share a common Facebook language, if you will. MySpacers share a common language. The Facebook language--light-hearted. MySpace language--freaky/kinky, even trashy (for lack of a less strong adjective). I think Facebook, I think of a tool for people to keep up with friends from the good ole days and from college. I think MySpace, I think of a tool for people on the prowl to make cheap cat calls in a text form and solicit...you know...certain things people solicit. An awkward/uncomfortable facebook feeling would be the equivalent of like, when you meet a friend of a friend, and he flirts with you here and there, and though you're flattered, you brush it off or politely decline. An awkward/uncomfortable MySpace feeling would be the equivalent of walking down a dark alley with drug dealers shouting at you from the left, prostitutes shouting at you from the right. Facebook-the house on the hill, in the friendly neighborhood with sidewalks. MySpace-down by the 8-Mile...I think you get the point.

    Now, I will agree with Monica that Facebook is competing so much both with itself and MySpace that it's destroying the feature for which people joined in the first place-- its friendly, safe, silly, fun, harmless connotative overtone. People on Facebook will say, "I don't like the new feature that lets people know where I am at the moment." And yes, in the past month or so, Facebook has developed a more stalker-like feel that people disapprove of big time(which is not such a good thing if Mark Zuckerberg is pushing for $2 billion). And with that, the beautiful, Facebook house on the hill is losing property value.

    What's being ignored is that people who have had the option choose Facebook because of its exclusive community, language, and yes, safety features (the .edu). And those who wanted to have a "facebook," yet are before or behind the generation, have had to RESORT to MySpace. It seems facebookers choose Facebook over MySpace, while MySpacers took the next best thing. Facebookers don't want Facebook to be like MySpace because indeed Facebook holds itself to a higher standard. I not too often disagree with you Jeremy Pepper, but the .edu more times than not, indicates a typical college student, and even if not a typical college student, an educated person.

    I know, I know, even educated people have very bad intentions and also fall victim of stupidity and leave themselves vulnerable. But, it might be bold, but I have to believe that those who want to do a little stalking would take the easy route and join MySpace over auditing a class to get a .edu email address so they can join Facebook.

    And from a PR standpoint, Facebook can help or hinder you. We can use it just as much to promote ourselves as we can to let it destroy our reputations. Plus, those who put incriminating pictures/comments/ etc. on Facebook are the type who live and learn from mistakes. It's their own dumb fault. Come on, we're all like twenty-something. We know better. But if you don't, you will sooner or later...the hard way.

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