Revolutionary Measures

Nick Clegg – the worst job in PR?

There are lots of jobs in public relations that could best be described as ‘challenging’ – and at worst be considered nightmares to avoid at all costs. Press secretary to Donald Trump or Elon Musk’s PR handler both spring to mind. However, these revolve around trying to control a wayward individual known for having their own communications style. In these cases the PR issues come with the territory as they are part of the brand.

So what are the worst jobs in PR when you take the figurehead out of the equation? I’d say that at the moment they revolve around Brexit and Facebook. I won’t go into Theresa May’s communications strategy as I’m not sure there is one beyond repeating the same stock phrases over and over again and hoping that the world will change.

Instead I’m going to focus this post on the challenges facing Facebook’s PR team, and in particular Sir Nick Clegg, the company’s recently appointed head of global affairs. First, a quick recap of the issues in his intray:

  • The Cambridge Analytica case, where data was illegally collected and used to target Facebook users
  • Failure to regulate fake news or Russian interference in the US election
  • Allowing posts that promoted genocide against the Rohinga minority in Myanmar
  • Automatically recommending content involving self-harm to vulnerable teens on Instagram
  • Not paying its fair share of tax

I’m probably missing a few – suffice it to say that in PR Moment’s annual review of 2018’s PR disasters, Facebook was villain of the month on three separate occasions, well ahead of any other business.

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What hasn’t helped has been its ‘solution’, which seems to amount to taking out a lot of adverts and whingeing a bit about it being so unfair (being 15 the company is going through a sulky teenager phase).

Oh, and hiring Nick Clegg. Obviously Clegg had a background in public affairs before he entered politics, so the combination of his experience seems like a good fit. But since he joined little has really changed. There’s still a refusal to engage with politicians – Mark Zuckerberg has dodged requests to appear in front of politicians, apart from one hearing of the US Congress. And all the time revenues have been increasing, adding fuel to the allegations that the company puts profits above doing the right thing.

Clegg’s job is not one I’d relish as clearly Facebook needs to undergo a root and branch reform to make it more open and accountable. And the clock is ticking – murmurs of breaking the company up in some way are growing, with splitting the different services it offers (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) into separate entities, providing what looks like an easy solution to lawmakers.

I’ve previously outlined what I think Facebook needs to do, along with other tech companies, to turn around its reputation, focusing on openness, confessing to past wrong doing, investing and matching words with deeds. Essentially Facebook needs to engage and that means communicating in a more human way – for its sake let’s hope that Nick Clegg is given the space and resources to deliver real change, rather than propping up the status quo.

February 6, 2019 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Brand safety on the wild internet

The internet has always had contradictory roots. The infrastructure may have begun as a DARPA-funded project to create a network with no single point of failure, but its first major users were counter-culture Californians who launched bulletin boards on the back of it. And the World Wide Web itself was created by Tim Berners-Lee when working at CERN, essentially to allow different researchers, with different IT systems to share information seamlessly.

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This contradiction is still present in the titans that currently dominate the online world. The likes of Facebook and Google may try to publicly position themselves as entrepreneurial start-ups with more in common with the California hippies when talking to users, but in fact they are now enormous corporations with correspondingly huge power.

As we’ve seen with the scandals surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, internal systems and data protection haven’t grown as fast as the need for control of user data. And this follows concerns about adverts being run next to unsuitable content on the likes of YouTube, leading to brands such as Under Armour pulling their ads.

The issue is one of brand safety – companies want to protect their reputation as well as reach the right audiences. In an always-on world with ever more complex (and opaque) ad-buying systems and increasing personalisation being sure your messages are reaching the right audiences through the right channels is vital. This isn’t just applicable to the internet – I’ve recently seen lots of adverts for household cleaning products on kids TV channels, although you can argue they are more targeted at parents watching alongside their offspring.

The latest challenge to the big internet companies goes beyond poor ad positioning though – focusing instead on unauthorised use of a brand to essentially front a scam. Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and consumer finance guru, is suing Facebook for running adverts that use his image to market high risk or fraudulent services, implying that he has endorsed them. Facebook counters that as soon as such adverts are reported, they remove them, only for them to pop up again with slight changes.

Given Lewis’ whole reputation is built on delivering honest consumer advice to save people money, it is no surprise either that he’s been targeted by scammers or that he is going to court to protect his brand image. As he says, he doesn’t do adverts, and that with their image recognition technology Facebook should be able to block anyone trying to use his photo, before it goes live. Lewis isn’t alone in having his details hijacked – we’ve all had emails and calls allegedly from Microsoft, BT or our bank trying to get us to handover control of our PC or account details. But the difference is that no third party is making money out of these activities – unlike in the case of Facebook.

By coming out against Facebook so publicly, and by promising to donate any damages to charity, Lewis is adding to the concerns around Facebook and its business model of publish first, remove later if necessary. It’s a great PR strategy on his part – a classic David vs Goliath move. I’m sure it is also being closely watched by other celebrities and organisations worried about their brand safety online.

All of the current concerns around big tech are part of a wider worry – from consumers to governments and advertisers themselves, people are waking up to the fact that their data is out of their control, and that companies are making large amounts of money from it. I think that 2018 is going to be a watershed year for the online giants – it is time for them to change how they market themselves and become more humble if they want to rebuild and retain our trust. The question is, can they win us back?

April 25, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Facebook, electoral manipulation and Cambridge Analytica

It’s a well-known fact that on ‘free’ social media sites, users are actually paying with their data, allowing them to be targeted with advertising that should match their preferences, and therefore be of interest. But the current revelations around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook show that the cost is potentially much greater than this, with personal data allegedly being used to microtarget and manipulate perceptions, and therefore heavily influence elections.

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While allegations into Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum have been made for some time, with the company subject to multiple investigations, including the Mueller probe, what has brought it into the headlines more recently has been good, old-fashioned undercover reporting from Channel 4 News. It sent a reporter posing as a Sri Lankan businessman to find out how CA could help him influence a local election – and the results were not pretty. Even allowing for the bluster involved in pitching to a potentially lucrative client, CA’s now suspended boss Alexander Nix’s claims that he could use entrapment and bribery to bring down political opponents as well as microtargeting demonstrate a complete contempt for ethics.

The fall-out has been rapid. As a privately held company bankrolled in part by conservative hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, CA has not suffered financially – but Facebook saw its company valuation drop by over $40 billion in the last two days, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg summoned to appear at a parliamentary committee to explain how the data of 50 million Facebook members was allegedly used (and retained) by Cambridge Analytica. At the same time the #DeleteFacebook hashtag on Twitter has been trending around the world.

Use of propaganda and half-truths to swing elections and mobilise voters is obviously nothing new, but the combination of the intimate position of social media in our lives and advances in psychological targeting mean that the majority of people are simply not equipped to understand when they are being manipulated through the likes of Facebook. And clearly the controls on the data that developers can harvest, access (and retain) are too lax to protect people.

So, I think two things need to happen. Facebook needs to put in tighter controls and make it obvious what data people are giving away when they use the service, download apps or take surveys. But more importantly for the political – and ethical – health of the population, everyone needs to be better educated about social media and online behaviour. Most of us have learnt how to pick out bias in newspapers, on TV and in the traditional media, but the personalised capabilities and echo chamber mentality of social media is something that has been thrust upon us without warning or time to adapt.

In the same way that people need to be taught to recognise fake news, they need to understand when they are being manipulated online. This should start in schools and encompass the whole population – if Mark Zuckerberg is smart he’ll attend the parliamentary committee, show that Facebook is changing and announce a global education programme on how to protect yourself on the network. Otherwise, the Cambridge Analytica story has the potential to significantly damage Facebook, hit revenues and reduce user numbers. The ball is in his court.

 

March 21, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments