Facebook’s “Whistle-Stop” Strategy Has Been Derailed

Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO, LEVICK

Back in the 1930s and 1940s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt went whistle-stopping via train, he could count on one overriding communications reality: little of what he said along the way would crack “national” newspaper, wire service, or radio coverage. In other words, he could pound the podium while delivering a pro-labor stemwinder at the Wheeling, West Virginia, depot one morning and not worry about it undercutting the more restrained pro-business remarks he planned to deliver that evening in Bryn Mar, Pennsylvania.

FDR wasn’t the only politician back then who exploited the limitations of media coverage. “Whistle-stopping,” the modus operandi of saying one thing in one place and (essentially) contradicting it in another, was common for leaders of both parties.

But that was then; this is now. Few people or institutions even attempt whistle-stopping anymore because the fallout – i.e., the damage to their brand – is too severe if they’re caught. In today’s global 24/7 media cycle, where, thanks to ubiquitous cell phones, everyone is an investigative reporter armed with a video camera, whistle-stopping has all but ended.

Memo to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: You might want to catch up to the “new” communications reality – you know, since you helped to invent it.

Facebook’s “Whistle-Stop” Strategy Has Been DerailedWhen Facebook gets into trouble, a non-stop phenomenon these days, it can’t say or do things in one corner of the globe – and not expect them to reverberate in another.

For years now, Facebook has sat idly by as Russia and other dangerous actors have used their platforms to foment unrest in fragile places like Myanmar and tried to upend democratic elections in Germany, India, and the Philippines – not to mention the U.S. – then pretend while testifying in Washington, D.C. or London that they’re “shocked, shocked!” – by the allegations. Facebook was apparently aware of Cambridge Analytica’s data mining for something like five years. And they promise for the umpteenth time to be determined to fix the problems right away – taking bows at every stop – hoping no one pays attention to their abysmal track record. Sheryl Sandberg’s memorized rehash earlier this week in Munich about shock, improvements, and promises was not well received.

As British Parliament member Damian Collins put it in a January 22nd New York Times op-ed that was sharply critical of Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and Facebook, “So much of our lives is organized through social media, and many people use social media platforms as the main source of information about the world around them. We cannot allow this public space to become a complete wild West.”

Look at the public space that has already been ransacked by bad guys manipulating social media. An estimated 43,000 Rohingyas have perished in Myanmar, a crackdown directed by a Myanmar military that used Facebook as its weapon of choice. Moreover, millions of voters on three continents (and one sub-continent) were fed mis- and disinformation that may have influenced the outcome of their elections. There’s little evidence that Russia and other bad actors are backing down from their shameful exploitation of social media. In fact, their interference is being copied by homegrown actors. “Out, out, brief candle.” We can only hope democracy survives.

Facebook can no longer whistle-stop or just brush off policymakers and regulators when they come. The cost includes the future of tens of thousands of children, many now immigrant orphans, the sanctity of democracies, and privacy.

Zuckerberg promised to fix Facebook and keeps telling us they are getting their house in order. But instead, with few exceptions, most of what we get from Facebook are insignificant changes and lots of denials.

It’s never easy, but as communications professionals our job is to help clients do the right thing, never more so than in a crisis. Facebook’s recent public posturing, on the other hand, is sadly reminiscent of the obstructionist tactics deployed a generation ago by the U.S. tobacco industry – deny and delay. Every time Facebook feigns surprise that their platform is being used for nefarious purposes, they undermine their own credibility.

If their gamesmanship before Congress and the British Parliament, et al., is any indication, Facebook believes that they’re smarter than we are—a blunder begging for more regulation globally.

Retaining an army of lobbyists and public relations specialists can only take Facebook so far. Consultants are not magicians. Instead of asking them to ‘put lipstick on a pig,’ Facebook should be arming them with solutions, and, dare I say it, visionary leadership for the information age.

Steve Jobs was irascible and difficult to work with, but he always lived in the mind of his customer. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have shown little inclination to think that way. So much for the Silicon Valley promise of a new form of capitalism: socially aware companies devoted to the well-being of customers, consumers, and employees.

For Facebook, their challenge has been to decide if we – the public writ large – are the customer or the product. By whistle-stopping their way around the world, they’ve let us know the answer. They are inviting their four greatest fears: being broken up into parts, ala Ma Bell; regulated into a utility; being sued ad infinitum by real victims; and being charged for our personal data. For Facebook’s sake – and our own – the company should read the flashing railways signs: “Future ahead, proceed at your own risk.”


Richard Levick - Facebook’s “Whistle-Stop” Strategy Has Been DerailedAbout the Author: Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK. He is a frequent television, radio, online, and print commentator and a regular contributor to CommPro.

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2 Comments

  1. Robin Cohn on January 28, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Excellent analysis of the dangers of Facebook. Richard provided a thoughtful study of how Facebook went off the rails. One point is the underlying philosophy between Steve Jobs living in the mind of his customers versus Facebook’s focus on product. This comparison is an important lesson for the business world.

  2. Uwe Wolff on January 30, 2019 at 10:29 am

    Richard, well to the point. “For Facebook, their challenge has been to decide if we – the public writ large – are the customer or the product. By whistle-stopping their way around the world, they’ve let us know the answer.” In their minds customers are just a trashbag full of valuable data waiting to be picked up. Very important that you mentioned what happened to the Rohingyas.

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