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Facebook's crisis PR firm becomes the crisis

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Pretend for a moment that you run a large and successful company. After years of outsized success, th
 
November 16 · Issue #249 · View online
The Interface
Pretend for a moment that you run a large and successful company. After years of outsized success, the company is confronted with a crisis. Public perception has begun to turn — against your company in general, and against you specifically — and your leadership team is now presented with the question of what to do. 
Your head of communications is charged with managing the public response. In time it will come out that this response including hiring a public relations agency whose work includes what is euphemistically referred to as “opposition research” and is more commonly understood to involve smear campaigns. These campaigns target you critics with attacks that are tinged with anti-Semitism and employ the services of a partisan “news” site that promotes your talking points to more mainsteream outlets. 
As CEO, your responsibilities are vast. But the crisis in question is arguably the most serious you have faced. So what do you know about the communications plan for dealing with the crisis — and when do you know it? 
If you are Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, or COO Sheryl Sandberg, the answer to these questions is Wednesday. That’s when the New York Times published its investigation into the company’s handling of 2016 Russian influence campaign, the details of which continued to roil the company on Friday.
In the company’s version of events, an unspecified person on the communications team hired Definers Public Affairs to monitor press about the company, help with product announcements, and carry out the odd whisper campaign against prominent enemies. The company’s reports were sent to hundreds of Facebook employees over the past year, but if they reached Zuckerberg or Sandberg, they appear not to have registered with them.
The person overseeing communications at the time — the person ultimately responsible for hiring agencies — was Elliot Schrage, who served in the role for a decade before stepping down in June. His departure marked a rare shake-up on Facebook’s insular M-team, whose composition had remained largely unchanged for many years. And yet while Schrage has officially departed, he said in a farewell post that he planned to stay on to manage the transition to his successor, Nick Clegg, this coming January — and that he would continue to work on special projects after that. 
And he has. I’m told that Schrage was seen on campus as recently as Tuesday. Is he working on the Definers fallout? Facebook hasn’t responded to my request for comment. But it’s at least possible that the fall guy for the Definers story is still working on one of the things that he publicly took he took the fall for.
Meanwhile, reporters are digging in to how Definers operated. The Times examines how it tried to get ahead of Congressional hearing by blasting out fact sheets listing which ad trackers senators used on their own websites, and how much they had spent on Facebook ads. CNN found the firm trying to plant a story about liberal bias at Apple. (Facebook says that work was not done on its behalf.) They also pitched The Verge a (presumably unrelated to Facebook) a negative story about the scooter company Bird.
At TechCrunch, Taylor Hatmaker finds several more ties to Definers at Facebook, where former Republican campaign staffers who once worked with its co-founder now work on the communications team.
Sandberg, who had remained silent for a day, put up a Facebook post on Thursday evening largely reiterating points other people had already made. This was the key passage, to me:
We’re no longer working with them but at the time, they were trying to show that some of the activity against us that appeared to be grassroots also had major organizations behind them. I did not know we hired them or about the work they were doing, but I should have. I have great respect for George Soros – and the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against him are abhorrent.
Sandberg then called in to CBS This Morning to discuss the story. “"We absolutely did not pay anyone to create fake news,” Sandberg said — and while plenty of people are more or less saying Facebook did, it’s worth noting that the original Times story did not.
Definers got around to issuing its first public statement, letting everyone know that the implications of their name aside, they are basically just a humble neighborhood press clippings service. The statement does not address its “in-house fake news shop,” as a former employee called it to NBC. NTK, which shares a co-founder and a physical office with Definers, put out a statement saying this was was all a big coincidence. (Farhad Manjoo has a nice roast of this here.)
One of the Definers, Tim Miller, put out a much better statement, in which he walks through most of the Times story and explains his side. It pays minimal attention to the smear campaigns, and no attention to NTK, but it at least grapples with the implications of circulating documents linking Facebook’s critics to George Soros, even when that link is legitimate.
Are we paying too much attention here to a single PR firm? I don’t think so. The field of public relations is a vast and largely unseen force shaping most of the news you consume, whether you know it or not. It’s a shadowy conspiracy that’s actually true! There are six PR people for every working journalist in the United States, and for the most part they are operating invisibly. Much of the work is essentially benign, but in the aggregate it exerts a force, drawing reporters away from more enterprising stories they might otherwise cover. And when the stakes are higher, companies are more likely to use agencies that resort to dirty tricks — and the public ought to know about those tricks, too.
I spent the past few days chatting with people in and around Facebook’s orbit about the likelihood that Zuckerberg and Sandberg didn’t know they had hired Definers. The former employees I spoke with were in unanimous agreement that they believed Zuckerberg when he said he did not. Communications, they said, has generally been something he was willing to delegate. I talked with other CEOs, outside the social realm, who told me they almost never knew what agencies their communications people were working with at any given time. I talked with people who hired agencies who said their CEOs never asked about them.
As many observers have noted, not knowing who your agencies are gives you a plausible deniability that can come in handy when they go rogue. But in the midst of a true crisis, it would seem that greater attention to detail is warranted. Certainly it was unlikely that Facebook’s hiring of a crisis PR agency would itself become a crisis. But the unexpected has been rippling across every corner of Facebook for more than two years now. The effort to reset the narrative on terms friendly to you — and the tactics by which you intend to go about it — would seem to deserve the CEO’s full attention.

Democracy
Facebook reports a massive spike in government demands for data, including secret orders
Notifications every 2 minutes: This in-depth look at how people really use WhatsApp shows why fighting fake news there is so hard
Elsewhere
What Facebook Knew and Tried to Hide
Facebook Morale, Already Hurt by Share Drop, Suffers Another Hit
Facebook's Instagram Loses Two Senior Leaders After Founders
Hackers Are Stealing Instagram Influencer Accounts
Bitcoin Giveaway Scams Are Flourishing On Twitter. They're Probably Coming From Russia.
‘No Morals’: Advertisers React to Facebook Report
How The Wall Street Journal is preparing its journalists to detect deepfakes
Bumble Is Open to a Right Swipe on IPO
Launches
Facebook Messenger is building a “Watch Videos Together” feature
Takes
It’s time to start regulating Facebook
Mark Zuckerberg’s response to the NYT’s damning Facebook story proved its point.
Antitrust Alone Won’t Save Us From the “Curse of Bigness”
And finally ...
Will Stanich's Ever Reopen? Why America's Best Burger Spot Closed Down
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and links to your favorite NTK stories: casey@theverge.com
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