Dallas Lawrence is Managing Director of Burson-Marsteller’s Proof Integrated Communications. He is a Mashable contributor on emerging media trends, online reputation management and digital issue advocacy. You can connect with him on Twitter @dallaslawrence.
The recent firestorm over Facebook’s approach to securing the privacy of its more than 450 million users continues to reverberate around the globe this week as thousands of news outlets cover the unfolding drama with almost breathless zeitgeist. And while traditional outlets are grappling with what it all means for the future of FacebookFacebook, online denizens have trumpeted their angst about the company’s most recent changes with more than 25 million blog posts.
The current crisis of confidence leveled against Facebook once again centers on the core issue of how the social networking platform manages access to its users’ information. PC World columnist JP Raphael noted earlier this month that with the significant new changes announced by the Palo Alto-based social giant, “achieving maximum privacy on Facebook now requires you to click through 50 settings and more than 170 options — and even that won’t completely safeguard your info.” According to news reports this week, the company may finally be reversing course (again) and returning to a streamlined security process.
To be sure, Facebook is no novice when it comes to navigating the controversies of privacy in the online marketplace, and it will very likely emerge from the current crisis singed, but not terribly worse for the wear. What is surprising however, and perhaps most troubling for a company that nearly all watchers agree must prove its mettle with a public offering in the next 18 months, is the voraciousness of the global opposition the recent controversy has sparked, and the apparent lack of corporate agility at Facebook to respond effectively to even the most basic crises inherent to an organization so intertwined in the daily lives of half a billion users.
The Lessons Facebook Can Learn from Google
Purported 7-year old texts from CEO Mark Zuckerberg are now lighting up the online community with an amusing, and some may say prescient peek into the then 19-year old’s views on privacy. The constant and steady drip of opposition forming around the most valuable social media property in the history of the InternetInternet is beginning to paint a picture of a company that has failed to fundamentally understand that what got it to where it is today will not make it into what it wants to be: A wildly profitable public company rivaling the reach and prominence of GoogleGoogle.
The $200 billion search behemoth learned these same painful lessons of accountability earlier in the past decade as they became the public whipping boy for privacy issues. Regular Congressional hearings, editorial columns and tech-savvy thought leaders all lampooned Google for their approach to user information. Many began questioning its very core mantra of “don’t be evil” that had mightily bound Googlers for more than a decade. Google’s response was to aggressively educate global regulators and privacy experts while dramatically expanding their Washington, DC footprint. They further ramped up public policy and communications outreach efforts to ensure they were accessible and accountable to those most concerned about their industry and how they as a company approached the prickly issue of online privacy.
Transparency is Key to Facebook’s Maturation
As regulators and privacy watchdog groups from the EU, Canada and the U.S. begin to catch up to the social media revolution and the inherent policy concerns that came with it, Facebook’s maturation has reached a seminal moment in the platform’s life cycle.
For a brand built on the ideals of transparency (sharing your life updates with your friends and family), Facebook must begin to embrace the mantra of a transparent and accountable organization while remaining free from the constraints of life as a publicly traded, heavily regulated, investor-driven company.
Facebook’s chief policy guru Elliot Schrage appeared at least to grasp the challenges that lie ahead for the company during a question and answer session with The New York Times last week. “Another painful element comes from professional frustration,” Schrage wrote. “It’s clear that despite our efforts, we are not doing a good enough job communicating the changes that we’re making … We may not always agree about the speed and comprehensiveness of our response but I’m here because I’m confident Facebook’s future success depends on our ability to respond.”
Tough words and sound perspective from a smart, well-respected industry insider. If heeded, they may finally drive the internal changes necessary for Facebook to complete its startup evolution and graduate into the world’s most dominant — and profitable — communications platform.