Facebook and Google: if you can’t do the time…

So today, on Today on Radio 4, and the front page of the Guardian, and on the BBC, and probably everywhere else, is the story of Facebook, Google, and a PR company that I’m not going to continue to kick (because I don’t like kicking PR agencies). That is, Facebook’s agency allegedly trying place smear stories about Google’s Social Circle network.

I don’t often get time to blog nowadays but this one just stuck in my mind all the way into work, for several reasons.

Now, whether or not the actual core claim is valid that “the American people must be made aware of the now immediate intrusions into their deeply personal lives Google is cataloguing and broadcasting every minute of every day – without their permission”, the prime issue here is one of trust. Trust and lies – or deliberate, covert smearing – don’t sit well. If you can’t be open and honest, do something different instead.

I remember when I first started in PR, as a copywriter, and I’ll be frank: I wasn’t entirely sure what PR was. That’s one of the reasons I started blogging, to share my ideas, get other people’s take on them, and learn. So, when I met up with some ex-colleagues and told them what I was up to, their immediate response was “What, telling lies?” I stuttered and spluttered and wasn’t sure how to respond.

Years later I’m absolutely confident that PR is not in the business of telling lies. I’ve seen people go to great pains to establish what can, and cannot be claimed. Anyone who’s ever been in a messaging session will know how much importance we place on the solid facts we have at our disposal, which verify and validate anything that a client says, or that we say on the client’s behalf. It’s part of our DNA.

For example, I interviewed a prominent UK political figure earlier this week. I’ve just spent a very, very long time making sure that everything I wrote up subsequently is absolutely accountable.

But, to take the iconoclastic approach, why? Why bother telling the truth? Sometimes lying really can get you what you want. I still remember lying to my parents about what happened to the TV set when in fact it wasn’t the cat that had knocked water down the back of it, it was me.

What about stretching the truth to its elastic limit? I heard about the Chilcott Commission yesterday and had forgotten it was even still running, but that’s come about surely because someone, somewhere, did quite a lot of manipulation to make things go their own way.

Why not lie? Why not conduct a covert smear campaign?

Well, the reason is this: you get caught. It’s all too true that you can’t fool all the people all of the time. We are fortunate in the West to live in a society where the competing agendas of politics, corporations and the media mean that if there is an untruth to be exposed, someone will expose it. Then, all hell breaks loose. Brands get damaged. We waste millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money on a phoney war and a toothless commission. You wind up on the front page of the Guardian and lose your job.

So you don’t lie because, if there’s any other way to do what you want to do, then do that instead. From the social media angle, if you find you need to get someone else to write your blog posts for you, or generally pretend to be you, then you may as well try to find a different medium because that’s not what social media is about. It’s about you. If you don’t have time, money or resource to do it, then don’t do it.

I’m not saying anyone in the Facebook/Google/PR case is lying. Facebook may be presenting a perfectly valid viewpoint. But the way they’ve done it? No. If Facebook didn’t have the time, money or resource to face the consequences of their PR agency’s methods, then they shouldn’t have done it. Unfortunately, they probably have ample amounts of all three.

4 thoughts on “Facebook and Google: if you can’t do the time…

  1. Nice post, Brendan. One thing you didn’t mention, though, is that in this age of abundant information (or misinformation) you don’t need to lie–you can simply cherry-pick data to suit your argument. True, public relations firms (sometimes) go to great lengths to ensure accuracy–but since someone else pays for their work you can be sure the information is usually biased.

  2. Right. I guess we’re talking the truth, nothing but the truth – but perhaps not the whole truth, right? Even so, a PR firm would consider possible ramifications of not highlighting certain facts that, were they to make it into the public domain, could cause problems. This is not pernicious – it’s just a necessary part of being canny with what you say, how you say it, and what you don’t say. We all do it ourselves, every day.

    I think it’s the ‘how you say it’ that went wrong here. The PR company was adhering to the old command-and-control mechanisms that don’t work anymore, and didn’t reckon with a blogger outreach backfiring on them. Apparently they’re now experiencing hellfire on their Facebook page, not least because they’ve been deleting negative comments. As I said: if you need to lie, or bend the truth, or resort to dirty tricks, then just don’t do it because there must be a better way.

  3. I agree with everything said here. PR done right is about validity of facts. And facebook is really good at, er, denying the facts? ^_^

    One point of interest: on all the LinkedIn forums I participate in, people take it as truth that CEOs have comm people blogging for them, for messaging reasons and for time constraint reasons. I kind of agree with it…it’s useful to cut that hour out of the CEO’s time and make it 15 mins where he reads and approves/gives any changes to be made to his feed.

  4. Interesting take there Brennan. Quite some time ago I posted about ghost blogging and started a bit of a fight, because I claimed that, sooner or later, big money was going to start paying attention to social media and the ‘Garden of Eden’ approach, where everyone really is who they claim to be, would no longer apply. And look at where we are now…!

    I totally buy the argument that the CEO doesn’t have time to participate. But I do wonder whether someone else interacting in LinkedIn has much value. I mean, what would the CEO actually learn from doing this? More to the point, what would happen if you did this and got found out? Your reputation would be in tatters.

    So my feeling on this is, if you can do it in any other way, use that way instead. But I do understand that, well, people *do* interact on their managers’ behalves because time and money dictate this.

    Interesting that you think this is the way business is done on LinkedIn. I have to say, I haven’t formed that impression myself. But then again, before I started out in PR I genuinely believed that those articles in the glossy magazines genuinely were written by the CEO of Corporation X or the CTO or Corporation Y. I hadn’t even heard of bylines. In truth, what’s the difference between a ghost-written, bylined article, and a ghost-written blog? Comments please.

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