The PR Winners And Losers Of 2021

It’s only the first week of 2022, but the PR scandals and triumphs of last year already seem distant. But before we let them fade into the rear-view mirror, I couldn’t resist one last list about 2021. Here are my  nominees for the PR Winners and Losers of the year.

The PR Winners

Britney Spears

The pop princess was a double beneficiary of a long-overdue PR redemption. First, there was revisionist history in a documentary about her early career. It highlighted the relentless tabloid scrutiny she endured at a time when she was suffering severe emotional distress. When it comes to her treatment by the press, things look very different today. Matt Lauer asking her on-air if she’s a bad mom, or Diane Sawyer making her the bad guy of her breakup with Justin Timberlake seems tacky, if not outright sexist. But Spears triumphed when she won her legal bid to end the conservatorship that mandated tight control of her life by her father. It was helped by a groundswell of social media support from fans posting to #FreeBritney, and egged on by a suddenly sympathetic mediaverse. It only took them two decades.

NFTs

Most people barely knew what non-fungible tokens (NFTs) were a year ago. But by the end of 2021, at least $27 billion was spent on NFTs in the form of digital art and collectibles. Speculators spurred on the NFT craze and early adopting celebrities in music, art, and sports drove constant media coverage. Even former Melania Trump wants a piece of the action. NFTs benefited further from press attention to the metaverse, driven by Facebook’s very public commitment and rebranding as Meta. Of course, NFTs are also ideal tools for scammers, fraudsters, and even money launderers, so they could easily end up on next year’s Losers list. But for now, they’re winning.

QR Codes

The emergence of the humble and once obscure QR code as an essential digital tool is probably the most unexpected success story of 2021. QR codes have been used in Asia for years, but here in the U.S. they weren’t even integrated into the iPhone until 2017. QR code usage first soared after the COVID-related lockdowns, of course. But it was last year that they went beyond restaurant menus to became truly mainstream. Was is positive PR and resulting media coverage that drove the change? Not really, but in vertical business sectors, plenty of digital content has educated managers on QR’s uses. And QR codes are likely here to stay, as they’re increasingly being used in the U.S. and abroad for contact-free transactions and many kinds of public information campaigns. Marketers love the codes due to their tracking abilities, and consumers don’t seem to mind one bit.

Billionaire Astronauts

Jeff Bezos had a good year. He started 2021 fighting off a sleazy tabloid scandal about his love affair and divorce but emerged as the leader in a new kind of space race among billionaires. For that matter, all three of the uberrich entrepreneur astronauts — Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Bezos — reaped a payload of PR for their space joyrides. The billionaire space race is pretty self-indulgent, but it’s also entertaining and it fills a gap that government programs can’t. Presumably it has the potential for tangible benefits, like jobs, investment, and new scientific discoveries for 2022 and beyond.

Peloton

Peloton was riding high just before Christmas after its speedy response to a fast-breaking PR crisis. The brand had put the problem of a TV character’s fatal heart attack after an indoor cycling workout firmly behind it. And just like that….Peloton was blindsided again. But rather than belonging on the Losers list, I think it deserves credit for smooth handling of the sudden double-whammy. It all started with the sudden demise of Mr. Big on the HBO series And Just Like That. After completing his 1000th ride on one of the cultish bikes, Mr. Big dropped dead, and Peloton’s stock suffered a drop of its own. The brand recovered quickly by featuring actor Chris Noth in a clever campaign promoting indoor cycling’s very real health benefits. Yet just as the ad gained traction, two women came out to publicly accuse Noth of sexual assault. Peloton swiftly steered its brand out of trouble by killing the campaign. I think it will emerge in fine shape despite the ups and downs.

The PR Losers

Clubhouse

When was the last time you thought about Clubhouse? That’s the problem. The social audio platform didn’t suffer a PR crisis so much as a drop off the radar screen. After a frenzy of media attention and a peak of 9.6 million downloads in February, Clubhouse adoption started to slow. It dropped its invitation-only feature (a necessity), and suddenly the buzz faded. At the same time, a slew of competitors launched. While its downloads have risen again due to international expansion, it’s now looking like Clubhouse was the victim of its own PR – too much, too soon.

Gettr

Clubhouse wasn’t the only social platform to lose momentum in 2021. Remember Gettr, the oddly named Twitter-killer helmed by former Trump advisor Jason Miller? It was launched with fanfare but instantly met technical difficulties, including signup delays, a rash of fake accounts, and security breaches. Despite Miller’s shameless public flattery and repeated invitations to the former president to join the platform and put it on the map, Trump never did get around to it. He had his own plans, of course. Don’t count out Gettr just yet; Joe Rogan has joined, so it may have a second wind. But last year most people who heard about Gettr did so on Twitter, and the tweets weren’t nice.

Better.com

The online mortgage company has had better years. Its 2021 crisis was precipitated in December when founder Vishal Garg fired 900 Better.com employees on a Zoom call, just ahead of a $750 million injection by SoftBank. That was bad enough, but Garg told remaining staff that he wished he’d made the layoffs earlier and threatened them with termination if they failed to ramp productivity. When a backlash grew, he defended his decision on an anonymous networking site by accusing the laid-off staff of “stealing” from employees and customers. While Garg apologized and stepped down under pressure, there’s now worse news for Better.com. The blunder has drawn attention to “multiple legal liabilities, conflicts of interest and corporate governance problems” before the company placed him on leave, according to Forbes.

Activision Blizzard

The gaming company was hit with multiple investigations into alleged sexual assaults of female employees in 2021. Like most such accusations, the alleged incidents went back years. Company emails uncovered in an extensive Wall Street Journal article suggested that CEO Bobby Kotick was aware of many incidents. Instead of sharing what he knew with the board of directors, Kotick kept quiet as Activision settled with accusers. After an investigation, the state of California filed suit against the company over the workplace harassment. Employee reaction was also fierce, culminating in a walkout to protest the situation. Kotick ultimately issued a strong statement about the company’s commitment to a fair and inclusive workplace. He also put his money where his mouth is by taking a significant pay cut and pledged to invest $250 million in gaming and technology for underserved communities. But the scandal has been a huge black eye for the brand and it remains on the defensive. Badly played.

Facebook

Facebook scandals are so common they’re almost boring. But the news broken by whistleblower Frances Haugen is more serious than past PR crises. Haugen used internal company documents to show that Facebook knew its products and policies harmed the mental health of teenagers but prioritized profits over the public good. And never has a whistleblower enjoyed the kind of PR rollout of her revelations. Haugen’s team negotiated a media exclusive with The Wall Street Journal, then went wider by granting access to a hand-picked press consortium. The media blitz peaked with her primetime interview on 60 Minutes and testimony before Congress. Facebook pushed back against the allegations, but it doesn’t have a deep well of credibility to draw upon. Lawmakers are infuriated, and, in a rare show of bipartisanship, they’re united in a desire to punish the company. What’s more, Facebook’s adoption of the corporate brand Meta, while a reasonable move to acknowledge its future direction, was seen as an attempt to dodge the negative flak with a new name. Bad timing and clumsy execution. Facebook is on its way to becoming the new Big Tobacco.

Does Facebook Work For B2B PR?

As the social media landscape becomes more complex, PR pros debate whether Facebook is still an essential platform. This is particularly true for B2B PR and marketing teams. For B2B communications, LinkedIn is typically the top social destination, and Twitter may also be useful, but few brands prioritize Facebook. 

Yet it may be a mistake to overlook Facebook. It remains the primary content distribution channel for marketers. Forty-six percent use the platform – more than the 33% who use LinkedIn. Facebook also overshadows other social channels with its sheer size. It has a user base of 1.6 billion, who spend an average of 35 minutes a day there. In 2021, marketers should reassess how they use Facebook and make full use of the tools it offers. But are these stats meaningful for B2B campaigns?

When to use Facebook for B2B marketing

Here are B2B social strategies that perform best on Facebook.

Advertising offers a strong return

Looking to build brand awareness? Remember, business buyers are people, too, and most of them are on Facebook. With the right audience data, Facebook advertising can get your brand in front of your targets. Its relatively low CPM offers a better return on advertising spend than LinkedIn in most cases. It may also offer a greater reach, and its ad tools are far superior. Facebook’s advanced machine learning algorithms, user data, and web tracking and analytics enable greater conversion optimization for ads. 

Retargeting is easy

Facebook Pixel, an analytics tool that can be installed on a website to measure Facebook Ad performance, lets you track leads across various devices and retarget visitors with ads on other platforms. LinkedIn offers a similar tool; its Insights Tag can be used for retargeting but is more expensive than Pixel.

Target groups with thoughtful content 

Facebook Groups offer ways to locate a specific audience and direct commentary on relevant topics to its members. Since Facebook changed its algorithm in 2018, the newsfeed has prioritized posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion, which include posts from Facebook Groups. 

Facebook Groups for business give brands the opportunity to organically build engagement while discussing technical and insider information, with lead generation as an added benefit. 

Targeting local and small businesses

Most small business owners find Facebook to be the best social media platform to connect with their customers. For large B2B marketers who target SMBs, Facebook may be an ideal environment. Small business owners are likely to check their feeds on a daily basis, making them easily targetable with product and service marketing messages.

New and useful Facebook features for B2B PR and marketing

Facebook isn’t the same platform today as it was just two years ago. It has introduced new ways for marketers to share content with an intended audience. Here are some B2B marketing tactics that brands should consider using on Facebook.

Video thrives on Facebook Lives

The rise of social channels like TikTok has propelled video as a major content trend in 2020 – and this is projected to continue into 2021. “Lives” marries the content trend to the popular theme of personal connection. Facebook isn’t the only platform that offers its users the Live feature; LinkedIn has a similar feature – but Facebook allows all users access while LinkedIn requires prior approval.

Brands can commit to conducting a Q&A or demo on Facebook Live once a week, which is a brilliant way to increase video content and repurpose it on all social channels. Facebook Live videos can be republished on YouTube or LinkedIn, and edited for shorter clips to post on Twitter. Video summaries of current blog posts are another way to ramp up video content.

Many marketers recommend that 20% of published social media posts have a video element to them – even animated GIFs count! 

Try unpolished images to drive engagement

Marketers know that posts with images are more likely to make audiences stop scrolling and engage. As social media evolves and algorithms change, users are scrolling more and more. One emerging trend on Facebook to stop the scrolling is nixing polished stock photos for more candid-looking, unvarnished images. This trend applies to both paid and organic Facebook posts.

Think you’ll be met with pushback? Consider testing a consistent brand image versus a more relaxed shot of what looks like could have been posted by a friend. That way, any changes will be data-driven.

Facebook Messenger allows personalized comms

Personalized communication is another emerging social media trend. Human-to-human (H2H) conversations in comments and DMs drive more conversions compared to a messaging campaign or post. 

Facebook Messenger, which uses bots to set up and send personalized messaging, can be an effective tool for engaging and converting page followers. Marketers report significantly higher engagement with Messenger as compared to email. Brands can send messages free for the first 24 hours, then assess their effectiveness through automated tools. If a portion of your customer bases uses Messenger and  you have the budget, a Messenger test could be well worth it.

Customer service and customer sentiment 

B2B companies should be actively working to strengthen relationships with their current customers, as well as limiting any reputation damage that results from posts by unhappy ones. Marketing should work with the customer service to address negative posts in real time. Never let requests for help or complaints go unanswered.

A “listening station” that monitors Facebook for any mention of your brand, products, and events, as well as those of competitors, can provide valuable information about activity on the platform.

Change up your social strategy

Social media is constantly changing. Social strategies need to shift with consumer habits, so most brands rethink or reevaluate their social approach regularly. While Facebook may not be the first line of defense for B2B marketing, but the data shows it can be very effective.

When Your PR Problem Isn’t About PR

For PR professionals, it’s interesting when a particular company or public figure is said to have a “PR problem.” Of course the term is used as shorthand, but it can signal that brand-watchers are misdiagnosing what’s wrong. “Bad PR” generally means negative media coverage, but the coverage is often a symptom rather than the problem. You can’t fix the situation until you understand what’s causing it.

Take the case of outgoing White House Communications Director Bill Shine. Shine announced his resignation last week, and though he will reportedly join the Trump 2020 campaign, the shift was seen as a soft landing for the former Fox executive. Shine was ousted because his boss, the president, isn’t happy about the bad press he’s received since Shine joined the White House operation eight months ago.

As one insider quipped to Jane Mayer in her deeply reported New Yorker article about Trump’s relationship with Fox News, “Trump thought he was getting Roger Ailes but instead he got Roger Ailes’s gofer.”

Ouch. That assessment may be harsh, but the evidence suggests the president’s biggest problem isn’t his press operation. The Trump White House has had five communications directors in only two years; it’s like a client that keeps churning through PR agencies in search of the perfect fit. You don’t have to be an expert to see that the perfect fit will never arrive.

When in doubt, blame the PR guy

The blame-the-PR-guy reflex isn’t limited to the White House. Facebook is a good example of a company beset with so-called PR problems that aren’t just about public perception, but some distinct realities, as well as a failure to respond appropriately by the company itself. At the recent Morgan Stanley conference COO Sheryl Sandberg seemed to frame its problems as a matter of public relations. “We need to tell our story better,” she’s quoted as saying. “And so we’re working hard to prevent the bad, but also to let the good stories be told.” Maybe Sandberg isn’t blaming her comms staff in particular, but she certainly isn’t acknowledging the reality. That’s the first and most important step in turning around public perception.

Most PR professionals have experienced the client who’s in denial about his problems, and it’s one of the most self-defeating situations we encounter. Not all are punitive, like the CEO who instantly axes the PR team over an unflattering interview. But those who hide the truth from their communications staff – and themselves — are the most insidious. PR pros aren’t magicians, and denial is a dangerous state for a chief executive or public personality.

Clients deserve the truth, even if they can’t handle it

My agency once won a digital reputation assignment from a client that suffered from terrible online reviews, among other challenges. It didn’t take much research to learn that its customers were right to be angry. Our PR proposal made it clear that if the company didn’t change its practices, our work would be in vain. I was surprised when the client we told us why we won the engagement against three larger digital marketing agencies who promised better results through SEO tricks. “You were the only one who told the truth,” he said — a pretty stunning comment, given the flagrancy of the problem. The relationship was successful because it was based on a realistic assessment of the situation, even if the client’s practices didn’t change as much as we hoped.

A company in denial of its unforced errors, on the other hand, is impossible to help. There are many situations that can be improved by a strategic PR and reputation campaign. Low visibility; an outdated perception; a competitive challenge; a public mistake that’s acknowledged and corrected — the list is very long. But the client who thinks the PR guy can fix anything he breaks, a la Olivia Pope, is like an alcoholic who says he’ll stop drinking tomorrow. Unless he really wants to change, it will never happen. “Good PR” isn’t just the result of a skilled communications officer’s work or a PR consultant’s media jujitsu. In part it grows out of behavior that’s fair and ethical, and until and unless that prevails, your “PR” probably won’t improve.

The PR Losers Of 2018

Against the backdrop of an ever-faster news cycle, 2018 has featured brands and personalities who seized unexpected opportunities to generate positive PR.

By the same token, 2018 has brought public disasters for others. Which stories captivated us in 2018, and who came out where? Here’s part one of my list for 2018 PR Winners and Losers. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

Facebook just can’t catch a break

It’s on every communications professional’s “worst” list. In 2018, past misdeeds caught up with Facebook. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded, CEO Mark Zuckerberg embarked on an apology tour, capped off with a cautious, contrite, and highly rehearsed performance before a Senate Committee in April. It was a detente of sorts, but the calm didn’t last. In November, The New York Times broke a blockbuster story based on three years’ worth of insider accounts of Facebook’s handling of the scandal. Its strategies were right there in the title — Delay, Deny, and Deflect. Even COO Sheryl Sandberg, who some have seen as a future presidential candidate, was badly tarnished by the piece. At a time when Big Tech’s reputation has plummeted, Facebook is a convenient scapegoat for an entire industry, but many of its problems are of its own making. There have been too many apologies that later rang hollow, and its bank of good will is nearly empty.

The NRA retrenches

Though controversial, the National Rifle Association has long been considered an indomitable PR force. Its aggressive stance on any and every issue related to gun ownership rights, coupled with its lobbying clout, made it a feared competitor. But 2018 brought a sharp reversal in its fortunes and its public image. The problems started with the activism that grew out of the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school. The Parkland students mounted a PR-savvy campaign to register young voters and focus attention on sensible gun legislation. What’s more, 2018 ended with a guilty plea by Maria Butina, the young Russian who allegedly tried to influence U.S. policy by infiltrating conservative groups, most notably the NRA, by posing as gun-rights activist in her own country. The story’s not over yet, but a willingness to stake out a middle ground on the firearms issue might have softened its critics. But as it stands now, the NRA will end the year with an eroding membership and declining revenues.

CBS has a #metoo moment (again)

The Tiffany network was again rocked by an unfolding scandal related to workplace sexual harassment. This time it claimed the job of network chief Les Moonves, costing Moonves his $120 million severance package and the network its reputation. In fact, CBS barely had a chance to recoup after its most recent #metoo scandal. The revelations that Moonves actively obstructed the investigation into claims that he sexually harassed and even assaulted employees came nearly a year after CBS fired Charlie Rose for sexual harassment. Worse, it seems that at least one CBS Board member knew about the allegations but said nothing. The mess just goes to show that most secrets don’t stay hidden forever, and that corporate cover-ups rarely stay that way. It’s usually best to expose all the bad news at once.

Scandal engulfs McKinsey

2018 was a regular annus horribilis for the blue-chip consulting firm. McKinsey was embroiled in a corruption and cronyism scandal in South Africa that nearly wiped out its business in the region. It even returned the $70 million in fees earned for the engagement due to widespread outrage over the “looting” of the South African economy. In June, the consulting giant announced it would no longer work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after the relationship became controversial among its own staff. A third reputation hit came in October with yet another investigative piece about its work in Saudia Arabia. Though it broke no laws, its representation of controversial clients has at best shown an inconsistent adherence to its own stated corporate values.

Tesla hits a wall

What to do when a company’s greatest asset – its founder – is also its biggest PR liability? That’s the dilemma Tesla faced this year when founder Elon Musk made news with a series of erratic moves in two-month period. In July Musk lashed out at one of the divers who helped rescue 12 Thai soccer players from flooded caves this summer, precipitating a wave of negative stories and a libel suit. Weeks later, he claimed in a series of tweets that he had secured funding to take Tesla private, startling investors and employees and triggering an SEC action and more litigation. As if that weren’t enough, in early September, Tesla shares nosedived and two senior officers resigned just hours after Musk smoked marijuana on a live web show. Despite its founder’s shenanigans, however, Tesla ended the year strongly, so here’s hoping it can stay on track in 2019.

Papa John’s feels the heat

Mercurial founders aren’t only in technology startups. Scandals burned pizza chain Papa John’s after founder John Schnatter’s use of a racial epithet during a phone meeting that was meant to be a media prep call, of all things.  Schnatter was ousted by Papa John’s board, but he sued his former company, and the result has been a mess of toxic PR for the brand. Apparently company franchisees are divided about Schnatter’s status, and his ouster precipitated more ugly disclosures, including at least two NDAs signed by women who accused the pizza king of sexual harassment.
“I am the American dream,” Schnatter once said in describing his company’s success. But in 2018, his behavior was a nightmare for the brand he created.

Kevin Spacey is “frankly” creepy

Thought we could close out 2018 without another #metoo moment? Think again. On Christmas eve, actor Kevin Spacey released a very strange video that may – or may not – have been a response to disturbing sexual assault allegations against him. His “frank” remarks were delivered in full villain mode as “House of Cards” antihero Frank Underwood and have generated over seven million views (more than any single season’s audience of the show).  Yet it was not a great PR move. In the video, Spacey seems to be urging his fans to look at his offenses the same way they do the murderous deeds of the character he played. Judging by the reaction on social media, most don’t buy it. Also caught in the turmoil was Netflix, which almost certainly had no advance warning of the video.

Mnuchin makes the wrong call

Another late-breaking PR crisis happened on when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin attempted to calm financial markets after the government shutdown and a wildly gyrating DJIA. In a letter posted on Twitter, Mnuchin reported that he had held a call with major bank CEOs and denied a “brewing economic crisis no one knows about,” as Salon’s Matthew Rozda put it. The letter stated that “the (bank) CEOs confirmed that they have ample liquidity…for lending to consumer, business markets, and all other market operations.”
The problem, of course, was that no one was really worried about a liquidity crisis, so the call seemed like a panic move and backfired badly, helping to send the stock market spiraling further downward. It’s the classic “never deny a negative” rule; if you don’t want your target audience to worry about an unlikely development, try not to mention it.

Next up: PR Winners: The Best Stories of 2018

Facebook And The Perils Of Opposition PR

Is it ethical for a PR agency to smear a competitor?

The question came up after a recent report in The New York Times about Facebook’s handling of its PR problems over the past three years. Its strategies are right there in the title – Delay, Deny, and Deflect: How Facebook Leaders Fought Through The Crisis. The picture is one of a company doing its damnedest to work all contacts, tap all allies, and thwart all critics to salvage its reputation.

Facebook’s posture under pressure should surprise no one. But an interesting aspect of it is the role of its PR firm. It brought on PR agency Definers Public Affairs to run political-style oppo against competitors like Google and Apple. Definers also sought to paint Facebook’s critics in a negative light. In a particularly distasteful move, the agency promoted questionable research that linked billionaire George Soros with anti-Facebook groups. The implication was that there were astroturfed protests bankrolled by someone with a political agenda.

The rationale for the down-and-dirty oppo PR is summed up in an earlier interview with Definers founder Tim Miller. Miller claims that a company’s goal should be to “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor.” Miller’s sales pitch to Silicon Valley execs, whom he views as “surprisingly unsophisticated” at using their own communications tools, seems to be that good will is a zero-sum game. If you lose, I win.

Oppo is risky, especially in tech

In my experience, Tim Miller’s view couldn’t be more wrong. When you impugn a competitor, you can easily risk tarring your entire category with one big, ugly brush. Oppo is particularly perilous in Big Tech, where the industry has experienced a steep reputation decline. Silicon Valley was once synonymous with innovation, ideas, and the American dream. Today the tech giants are being blamed for income inequality, housing shortages, infringements on privacy, and our collective attention deficit, among other social ills.

True to form, Facebook took swift action after the NYT article posted. Within hours, it announced it had cut ties with Definers, while simultaneously defending its work with the agency as completely legitimate and aboveboard. But when the heat is on, it’s easy to blame the agency.

So, was Definers ethical? Many PR battles are waged in hotly competitive categories, and the line between aggressive communications and an outright smear campaign can be blurry. As more details emerge, it seems like they did go too far.

But firing the agency won’t help Facebook much, or at least it shouldn’t. Facebook was calling the shots. And this isn’t the first time it has been called out for questionable PR tactics. As Bob Pickard of Signal Leadership Communications reminded us, Facebook was caught running a “whisper campaign” against Google in 2011. It hired Burson Marsteller to pitch bloggers on Google’s invasions of user privacy. It’s an accusation that seems almost quaint post-Cambridge Analytica, but the furor in PR circles after a blogger posted the agency’s “secret” anti-Google pitch was as much about incompetence as ethics. It was a clumsy, tone-deaf approach to the then-burgeoning blogger community.

As for the ethics of spreading competitive “dirt,” most PRs would agree that the line is crossed when misleading or false information is used. Apart from that, things get murky. Most communicators I know would recoil at sharing information about a competitor that’s poorly sourced, highly sensitive, or truly personal in nature. But even for someone not concerned about ethics, a smear campaign is a stupid strategy.

The first rule of reputation PR is not to embarrass your client. Do no harm, in other words. Even in bareknuckled political contests, such conduct can easily backfire, and it’s truly not the norm for mainstream PR practice. And that’s really the bottom line for professional communicators. As that 2011 Burson team learned, if you throw mud, you’re likely to get dirty.

Mr. Zuckerberg Goes To Washington: A PR View

Mark Zuckerberg’s trip to Washington this week marked a high-stakes PR challenge for the Facebook CEO as well as its brand. After months of negative coverage following the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal and a series of half-hearted public responses, Zuck faced the music. So how’d he do?

Above all, Zuckerberg was well prepared. Some might even say too prepared, given the frequency with which he prefaced answers with the questioner’s title. In fact, “Senator” and “Congressman” were used more than any other words. That, plus Zuckerberg’s flat, emotion-free affect gave his answers a stilted, overcoached quality.

Facebook came prepared

But for an occasion like a meeting with Congress, overpreparation beats the opposite. The Facebook communications and policy teams clearly left nothing to chance. A shot of Zuckerberg’s notes, which an AP photographer managed to snap when he left the room for a break, revealed neatly typed message points on every conceivable topic. (It also raised an interesting question about his right to – well, privacy.) Zuckerberg’s seat was even supplied with an extra cushion – possibly to make him look taller and more authoritative.

Mostly, he stuck to the script, patiently elaborating on key points over and over. In response to questions, he repeated that Facebook doesn’t feel it violated the 2011 consent decree about user privacy; that it has a reasonable attitude toward regulation; and that Facebook doesn’t actually sell data – technically true, of course, but lacking context.

The first day of testimony was highlighted by awkward moments that showed the Senate Committee’s relative lack of sophistication about digital advertising and privacy issues. Zuckerberg seemed a little baffled by the ignorance of some questioners, which gave rise to plenty of mean tweets and gifs about the average age of the Senate committee members.

Jokes notwithstanding, there were plenty of landmines during the two days of hearings. Senator Lindsey Graham’s queries about how much Facebook’s offering overlaps with other platforms like Twitter or Snapchat may have seemed naive, but there are antitrust issues lurking behind them. And on day two, House Committee members were far more aggressive than their Senate colleagues, asking pointed questions about the nuances of web-tracking, data-sharing by third-party apps, and underage users.

The best thing that Zuckerberg did was convey a sincere sense of responsibility for Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of data and Russia’s misinformation campaign on the platform. At times he showed real indignation. He reminded his audience regularly of Facebook’s humble beginnings in his Harvard dorm. He wasn’t defensive or prideful; in fact, his insistence that Facebook would welcome the right kind of regulation was disarming, at least on the face of it.

Media company or agnostic tech platform?

Maybe most importantly, Zuckerberg edged a little closer to identifying Facebook as a media company. He still contends that it is, above all, a technology platform “because the primary thing that we do is have engineers who write code and build product and services for other people.” Yet when the question was whether Facebook is responsible for the content shared on the platform, Zuckerberg was unequivocal: “I believe the answer to that question is yes.” This represents a more mature Zuck and an evolution of Facebook’s communication of its role and responsibility. But if the goal is reputation rehabilitation, the hearings were just the beginning.

This is where the hard part begins. Facebook-watchers remember Zuckerberg’s past apologies, and regulators have eagle eyes on that 2011 consent decree. On the serious matters of user privacy and outside manipulation, after the carefully constructed apology tour and two days of choreographed testimony, Facebook must walk the walk.

After The Russia Scandal, Is Facebook Growing Up?

Is the Russia scandal an ultimate comeuppance for Facebook? Will its reputation suffer real harm as a result, or will it rise to the occasion and grow up?

When it revealed it had sold about $100,000 in targeted ads to a shady Kremlin-funded organization bent on reaching U.S. voters, I was initially skeptical about any real impact on Facebook’s reputation or its business.

Facebook has weathered many storms in its 13-year history. Today it is unrivaled as a digital advertising platform. In fact, by the end of this year Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent) will account for half of all ad revenue worldwide, and more than 60% in the U.S.

Yet the original social network’s early challenges over platform changes, competitive practices, and even user privacy policies seem almost quaint compared to today’s knotty issues. Live-streamed violence on the platform, ubiquitous low-quality clickbait, and the scale of the “fake news” problem have emerged as real business threats.

Technology platform or media company?

Most important, perhaps, is Facebook’s identity crisis — or, rather, identity denial. As it has grown in size and influence, Facebook stubbornly maintained that it’s a technology company, not a media business. Insisting that it’s an agnostic tech platform, of course, makes it seem less accountable for unintended consequences around content abuses or the sway of fake news. And Facebook seemed determined to have it both ways, wanting all the growth and influence with little of the responsibility beyond basic moderation. Facebook resisted the media company label even as it dove deeper into content paying media companies to create content and planning to develop its own TV-style shows.

That positioning began to change after the fake news scandal hit. Facebook watchers talked about a “maturing” at the company. Zuckerberg even launched a kind of national listening tour, which led to speculation he will run for higher office. (For what it’s worth, I think the true presidential contender at Facebook is Sheryl Sandberg, not her boss.)

But the real tipping point came with the revelations of Russia-sponsored ads. No one – least of all the media who covered the story and dogged Mark Zuckerberg about a paid Russia connection – has forgotten his response. He famously called it “kind of a crazy idea” that Russians might have used the platform to influence voters.

Today that idea isn’t so crazy. And Facebook looks clueless, or, worse, deceptive, for its denials. (Some of the ads were paid for in rubles, for heaven’s sake. How hard could it have been to spot them?) Instead of “bringing the world closer together,” as outlined in its mission statement, it seems Facebook has been used to divide us here at home.

Moreover, the public has grown exasperated over the situation. A recent poll conducted by the Factual Democracy project shows that most Americans hold Facebook responsible for inaccurate stories.  Seventy-three percent of voters said they think “Facebook should hold itself to the same standard as other media companies to only publish accurate stories about candidates during election season.”

Perception is reality, of course. Facebook is the world’s largest media company, and it must own up to that status. To his credit, Zuckerberg issued an apology for his “dismissive” attitude. He followed the familiar pattern of Facebook-in-crisis-response mode, including a soberly scripted video that addressed the situation on Facebook Live. Most importantly from a reputation management perspective, he has pledged tangible measures to prevent such weaponization of the network in the future. The company is naturally cooperating with the Congressional investigations and it recently detailed measures to root out fake stories and shutter imposter accounts.

Most observers think the recent revelations are the tip of a larger iceberg. If so, what Facebook does in the coming months is crucial to the future of its brand and even its business. According to Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, Zuckerberg’s true skill is not that of a visionary, but “in looking back and fixing where Facebook has failed.” Manjoo sees hope in the example of Facebook’s failure to fully anticipate the rapid shift from desktop PCs to mobile devices, and the initial mobile strategy that Zuckerberg “tore up” and rebuilt from scratch when he realized it was inadequate.

Quoting someone close to Zuckerberg who claims the Facebook founder has an uncanny ability to learn from his own mistakes, Manjoo writes, “He was late to appreciate how the world’s most-used social service might be used for ill. Now that he finally seems to understand the problem, there may be hope that he can do something about it.”

I hope for the brand’s sake, and for our own, that he is right.

Is Facebook Still Best For PR Campaigns?

Does Facebook still work for brand PR?  The answer depends on your audience, but it’s likely to be yes. Although teens may have moved from Facebook to Instagram, Facebook is still used by 71 percent of  U.S. adults aged 18 and older. Not only do nearly three quarters of this group have a Facebook account, but according to the Pew Research Center, around 70 percent check it daily. So, what are some current best PR practices to consider when leveraging the site for earned and paid exposure?

Keep posts short and visual, and post on Thursdays and Fridays? Yes, current research says photos get 53% more likes, 104% more comments and 84% more click-throughs on links than text-based posts. Emoticons boost engagement and engagement rates on Thursday and Friday are 18% higher than other days.

Take inspiration from top brands. Facebook can go beyond brand storytelling and customer service, although it’s useful for both. It’s also an ideal platform for crowdsourcing a new product idea, or even customer insights, like Bobbi Brown’s campaign to bring back “retired” lipstick shades, or Lay’s #DoUsAFlavor campaign.

Create and manage Facebook Groups. Facebook Groups are an excellent way to manage relationships for a group, organization or brand.  Consider posting all company/product and interesting industry news, an events calendar, networking benefits to members, and other ways to participate. We have watched the Facebook group for a health technology client of ours grow exponentially by using the “face” of the company to help personalize content and posts.
Let your audience do the work for you. Businesses can connect with thousands or even millions on Facebook with a single click. If posts are provocative and share-worthy, the audience will be happy to do the work for you by liking, sharing, commenting and re-posting to other sites. Figure out what your “friends” like and comment on; and give them more of the same! Additionally, the connections made are that much more personal since people trust their friends and their information, leading to future benefits.

Earned vs. paid or both? We believe in maximizing the opportunity of the medium, may the best methodology win! Therefore, post some great visual content – include a provocative question or contest offer –  boost that post and consider advertising around it. Test some very inexpensive Facebook advertising and see what kind of ROI you get. If paid messaging increases brand affinity and purchase intent, while keeping cost efficiencies manageable, we are all for it.

Explore tools that will improve your posts. Whether a brand is looking to spruce up visual content or make social media publishing and scheduling easier, there are some terrific tools to explore. Canva helps the design-challenged create beautiful graphics for use on Facebook or any other social site. Try Edgar to organize and maximize social media updates. Stuck for ideas? Get to know buzzsumo.

Social Media Must-Haves (for first-time PR clients)

Behind every great company is a great social media plan. I’m being slightly facetious, but there’s no denying the importance of a strong digital, as well as traditional, PR strategy. The two are complementary, and for first-time PR clients, there are definitely some must-have elements we recommend when implementing a new social media plan.

Twitter- There was a time when Twitter was a social media “consideration.” No more! Brands are reckoning with its power every day, as are political candidates: How else would #horsesandbayonets be the top trending topic? Twitter allows companies to share news at a viral rate, as well as communicate with followers in real time. The creation and maintenance of a twitter presence is one of the simplest ways to set a new client up in the digital space. Additionally, the limited-character format forces clients to be creative and selective in what they share, providing them an opportunity to think differently.

Facebook- Easily the most widely used social media platform in the world, Facebook is another integral part of a new client’s social media strategy; “friending” is not just a social pastime! The same sharing of information we enjoy on a personal level carries into Facebook on a professional level, and since pretty much everyone is on Facebook; it’s one of the easiest ways to connect with potential customers. Additionally, apps and advertising have made it easier than ever to position new clients in the most successful way.

Blogging- Although blogging is arguably one of the more time-consuming elements of a social media strategy, it’s also a powerful way to showcase your client’s expertise in their industry. By creating highly credible content that’s interactive and shareable, your client is not only using a new platform to reach interested audiences, but extending into new audiences thanks to sharing, endorsements and guest blogs.

LinkedIn- LinkedIn is essential for any professional; so it makes sense for a company to have a LinkedIn presence as well! LinkedIn helps people understand what your company is about, and can even provide insight into your company culture. Viewers can see past and present employees, as well as job openings, recommendations and more. LinkedIn is a great way to present your client to the business community and will also help them internally as a recruitment tool.

These are just a few elements, but there are a variety of other networks that can be included in your new client’s social media strategy; just make sure the medium matches your client’s specialty. What other elements do you consider to be “must-haves”? Leave it in our comments!

How To Create A Successful Facebook Contest

by guest blogger Sodelba Alfaro

It’s been fashionable of late to bash Facebook, but here are the facts. Nearly half of 18-34 year olds check Facebook as soon as they wake up.  Those are huge numbers, and brands are taking advantage of this by launching promotional campaigns on the social network.  With a Facebook contest, a brand can easily increase its number of fans, create brand awareness, and engage their consumers.

The following tips will ensure that you get your next Facebook contest right:

Define your audience – There are several types of contests that can be run on Facebook, and each speaks to different audiences.  Video, photo, and essay contests can be a great way to gather content for your page, although they are generally created for highly engaged users.  If this is the audience you are trying to reach, go for it.  However, If you’re trying to reach a new audience by gaining fans, try a promotion with a simpler method of entry.

Know the rules – Don’t get shut down before you get started!  Be sure to follow the Facebook Promotion Guidelines whenever you run a contest.  Facebook bans users from running contests that use any Facebook functionality and therefore, requesting entries be posted on your wall, announcing winners on your page, and asking users to upload pictures into Facebook are prohibited.  Save yourself the trouble and run your contest through a third party application like Wildfire or Shortstack.   Make sure to follow the rules as violating Facebook guidelines can get your page removed.

Cross promote your contest on other social media channels – Spread the word about your campaign by cross-promoting it on your other social sites such as Twitter or Pinterest.  This will help create buzz and awareness while carrying over those fans that may not yet follow you on Facebook.

Give away an awesome prize – If you want users to participate in your contest, the prize needs to be special.  When considering a prize, make sure it is something that will attract your ideal customer.  Say you’re running a contest for a fancy restaurant.  Why not give away a three-course meal?  A great prize will attract, and engage ideal users to your page.

What’s your favorite Facebook contest success story?