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What does the Facebook scandal mean for your comms strategy?

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal has filled many in the media, as well consumers, with secret delight, as one of life’s great pleasures is throwing mud at large corporations. But how much of this mud is going to stick, and are the recent revelations really that much of a surprise? We ask social media experts for their take on the debacle and ask whether social media strategies must now change.

Your data must be robust

The scandal means that companies must be extra vigilant over how they use data says Stephen Waddington, partner and chief engagement officer at  Ketchum: “Every interaction we have with a machine leaves an audit trail of data. We can’t foresee how that data that we share via the internet might be used.

“There’s the rub. We knowingly share personal data with social media platforms. The challenge is that we are reliant on the services we use to have an assertive approach to data security. There’s a clear conflict when a business model is predicated on that data.

“Trust in Facebook has been dented, especially amongst tech-savvy users, but the fact is that Facebook has become a utility. There hasn’t been a mass exodus, however, the case has pricked the public consciousness. It’s likely that consumers will be more mindful of their personal data, and regulators will tighten their grip.

“The case strikes at the heart of upcoming European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation. It calls on organisations to have robust data management and security policies.”

You must be more transparent

You have to be more cautious when using data now says Katie King, managing director of PR and social media agency Zoodikers: “The scandal has forced brands – and their agencies – to open their eyes as to how they engage on social platforms. More specifically, this growing consumer awareness and backlash is forcing brands to be more cautious and transparent about what they do with the data they collect and who they share it with.

“Although trust has been broken, we continue to use Facebook to target many different stakeholders. But we are aware of the importance to remain vigilant because all social platforms also have the power of a personal data breach too. Many big brands have faced public disgrace before and the key focus should be on their actions in response, including new data policies and enhanced privacy tools, as well as the promise to pursue these big changes. However, people have short memories and forgive in time. Facebook is still in demand because it provides a valuable and enjoyable communications tool for both businesses and individuals across the world. But it needs to clean up its act quickly.

“Transparency is essential for a brand if you plan to gain and maintain customers, regardless of business size. In addition, the recent scandal emphasises to brands that privacy is of paramount importance and to never depend upon one social channel for marketing.”

More restrictions are likely

Privacy has always been protected to some extent, says Michael White, digital account director at PR firm Lansons, in his discussion on the history of the scandal and analysis on how it is further gong to unfold: “There has been a significant aftermath on social listening companies following the Facebook data-privacy revelations. Facebook has hastily reacted to the news, announcing many changes to its data providers programmes. This recently involved shutting down access for its third-party providers, like Experian and Acxiom, and removing and limiting Instagram access for developers. It hasn’t all been reactive though.

“Before December 2017, Facebook had made aggregated and anonymised data, collected from peoples’ private posts, available to selected social listening tools. From a privacy point of view, peoples’ private information was always protected; instead brands would use summary demographic and topic insights to inform their integrated PR activities. However, this feature was switched off for many at the start of 2018, leaving only publicly searchable information available. Almost like preparations were taking place for the Cambridge Analytica story…

“Social listening is critical for developing client strategies, customer services monitoring, and reputation management. As the Facebook story continues to develop, more restrictions are likely to appear, directly impacting on PR programme capabilities and efficiencies. As an industry, we should strive for a mainstream understanding of social media listening and for regulation to ensure privacy is always respected… in turn, securing our access to monitor. “

Use your own online platforms

But there is no need to rely on Facebook so much anymore says Simon Turton, owner of agency Opera PR: “I am becoming increasingly sceptical – maybe even cynical – about the real benefits of social media for companies and organisations. That said, I am no Luddite and my company does manage social media accounts for clients.

“The problem is that you may get a few hundred feel good ‘likes’ that you can report to your client, to justify your fee, but how many companies would prefer actual clients compared with virtual friends (some of which are probably not even human)? Ultimately, with social media all you’re really doing is promoting the social media platform and as we have seen with Facebook, it is using, manipulating and selling our data and getting very rich in the process.

“So, do you stop using social media? That’s your call – or a decision for your clients – but my advice would be to use (or start to use) your own company’s website or that of your clients as the main platform to promote products and services. Factor in other marketing activities and ease off on the social media spend and then monitor the impact on enquiries and sales.

“Don’t forget email marketing – a powerful medium that has been wrongly marginalised – to engage with your customers and use it to direct them back to your own (or client’s) site, where you are more likely to make sales or otherwise influence prospective customers.

“Social media platforms might be free to use, but we all forgot to ask what the true costs are and we should have also read the small print. I think we now all know what a 'free' social media platform equates to – it’s anything but social and it certainly is not free.”

Notes on the scandal

  • 17 March The data firm Data Analytica is suspended from Facebook after it was revealed that it bought data from Cambridge University’s Aleksandr Kogan who made a ‘personality app’ that gathered data he then sold to third parties.
  • 20 March The US Federal Trade Commission opens investigation as to whether Facebook had violated a settlement reached with the US government agency in 2011 over user privacy protections.
  • 6 April Facebook confirms that it is working on a feature that would enable users to delete messages they had already sent from the inbox of the recipients.
  • 8 April Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak tells USA Today that he is leaving Facebook over concerns over how tech firms make money from personal data.
  • 9 April Facebook starts to notify the 87 million people whose personal information may have been shared with Cambridge Analytica.
  • 10 April Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologises to US Congress, saying the social media network should have done more to prevent data being misused.

There has always been public unease about privacy and data, and the Facebook scandal has thrown a spotlight on this. As long as your practices are rigorous and follow GDPR regulations, then you can feel more confident that your social media campaigns will get the right reception amongst target audiences, rather than generate a raft of complaints.

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