Thursday, October 7, 2010

Facebook's crafty PR handling of "The Social Network"

David Fincher's "The Social Network" film came riding into release with a ton of buzz on its tail. While the raves were nearly unanimous, it dissected the character of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook -- did he rip off his friends' ideas to create the company that would make him the youngest billionaire in the world?

Nearly every character in "The Social Network" is greedy, slimy, devious and plainly naive. Although there is much debate as to the validity of the story itself, Facebook was heading into what looked like a major take-down of its founder and whether the concept was even legitimately his own.

Forget about the debate about "The Social Network's" fiction quotient. Let's examine what I think has been a mostly successful public relations campaign to defuse the controversy.

As a puppy owner, we are taught in obedience training class about positive reinforcement -- redirecting the dog from chewing objects and jumping on people to more productive activities. Now that a few weeks have passed since Facebook went public with its strategy, it's been very much like that dog training philosophy: a colossal redirecting of both the press' and consumers' attention from the film's core assertions.

Playing offense, Facebook made the first move 10 days before the film opened by sending Zuckerberg onto Oprah Winfrey's TV show to announce a $100 million donation to the Newark, NJ public school system. His well-written statement on air: “What I have to do is find good people who are going to be really good leaders and invest in them."

Thinly veiled ploy? Sure. Did it make headlines everywhere? You bet. Headline writers couldn't concoct slight variations of "Zuckerberg Likes Newark Schools" fast enough.

Suddenly, following in the footsteps of Bill and Melinda Gates and other education benefactors makes the golden halo. Zuckerberg looks like a decent, extremely generous human being and you can't even imagine the same person would be the one portrayed in that movie everybody is talking about.

Leading up the film's October 1st debut, there was a frenzy of interviews with the stars, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher. Word of mouth was building that Zuckerberg's portrayal was brutal and only slightly human and regretful. Sorkin calls him a "tragic hero."

Facebook fights back by letting David Fitzpatrick, the author of the Zuckerberg-authorized "The Facebook Effect," write a powerful Washington Post op-ed called "Five Myths About Facebook" and converse with every "Social Network" obsessed reporter that wants an "expert" quote.

On the film's opening day, that's when the most ingenious part of the PR strategy hit: take the whole staff out to see the movie. Why hide when you can just laugh it off and take the whole gang down to the Mountain View multiplex? Facebook even issued a statement about it: "To celebrate a period of intense activity at Facebook, we decided to go to the movies. We thought this particular movie might be amusing."

The next day, Facebook public relations executive Brandee Barker even posted a two-part review: "My review of THE movie: entertaining Hollywood drama, great soundtrack, witty dialogue, LOTS of inaccuracies and/or distortions of truth... and then "...compelling performances, but not the REAL Mark, Dustin, Chris or Sean that I know. And completely degrading to women."

Not enough companies are smart enough to take this tact when something negative is coming their way: face it head on and, as the British like to say, take the piss out of it.

Just a mere few days later, another diversion: an animated version of Zuckerberg appeared on the widely-popular cartoon TV series "The Simpsons." The pixelated founder explains Lisa Simpson and her buddy Nelson that many successful people didn't finish college to pursue their dreams, such as Bill Gates and himself. Although I'm not quite sure how this message meshes with his $100 million education donation, at least he wasn't the squinty-eyed weasel from the movie.

The final well-planned shoe dropping was the announcement of three new consumer-driven products, nearly one week after the film's opening. By unveiling Facebook Groups, the ability to download your profile and take it with you, and monitor app usage as the master of ceremonies, everything was tied up in one nice bow -- it does not matter about the movie... what matters is Facebook the product and the services it provides for you, the consumer.

And if that wasn't subtle enough, consider this comment Zuckerberg gave to Mashable's Ben Parr a day or two after that press conference, which really puts the whole public relations strategy in perspective: “We build products that 500 million people see… If five million people see a movie, it doesn’t really matter that much.”

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