Back when I was working as a reporter, I was struck by the fact that the companies with the strongest brands are sometimes the worst at public relations. I won’t name names, but suffice to say that some of Canada’s most iconic brands are among them.

The most recent (non-Canadian) example is Facebook, which had come out of nowhere in the past 12 months to establish itself as one of the English speaking world’s most loved brands. No exaggeration.

It’s also no exaggeration to say that the Facebook folks are precariously close to losing all that good faith.

In an online piece yesterday Josh Quittner, the former editor of Business 2.0 magazine, warned that Facebook is being harmed “perhaps to a terminal degree” by “enormously bad PR.” He writes:

For a social media company, these folks don’t understand the first thing about communication; they have alienated the press by being arrogant, aloof and dishonest. Their idea of press relations is sending a stupid message to a What’s New at Facebook Group that directs you to another website for a canned statement. … Facebook has turned all the people who rooted for it into a lynch mob. In the space of a month, it’s gone from media darling to devil.

His harsh words relate to Facebook’s PR efforts around its Beacon advertising program, which allows Facebook advertisers to send users’ personal data — like what books or movies they order — to their friends.

Also yesterday, Robert Scoble (author of Naked Conversations), dumped blog criticism on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for his turtle act around Beacon:

I don’t see ONE SINGLE INTERVIEW that Mark Zuckerberg, or top executives at Facebook, have given ANYONE. Hell, don’t like me or other bloggers? Then give a press conference with professional press. ANYTHING would be better than the way that Facebook is handling this.

It appears that Zuckerberg may have got the message. For the first time in 15 months, Zuckerberg posted today to the Facebook blog. (Interestingly, his last post was also an apology).

Here’s what he wrote today:

We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it. … It took us too long after people started contacting us to change the product so that users had to explicitly approve what they wanted to share. Instead of acting quickly, we took too long to decide on the right solution. I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this situation and I know we can do better.

He took responsibility, apologized and announced that Facebook has released a privacy control that allows users to turn off Beacon altogether. This may be a case of too much, too late. Zuckerberg failed to follow one of the primary rules in crisis management: Apologize because it’s the right thing to do, not because you have to. By waiting too long (until he had to), he may actually have had to make greater concessions than if had been able to get ahead of the crisis early on.

Facebook is the poster child for social media, conversation marketing and online communities. But while it facilitates and enables those communities, it is surprisingly ignorant in how to converse in them.

mcarthur (at) veritascanada.com

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