The P.R. side of the Facebook boycott

Hopping on the bandwagon is a no-brainer, but more needs to be done.

At a moment when our collective eyes are focused on the dual society-shifting events of a pandemic and protests against racism, a third event has also managed to grab our attention: Facebook.

Last week, we talked about the efficacy of such a boycott. For Facebook, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a paper cut. Sure, it doesn’t like losing money. And the strains on the relationship between the company and agencies/brands over the past week have hit levels not seen since the Cambridge Analytica fallout or when Facebook admitted to lying about video metrics. 

But when all’s said and done, Facebook is run by one person who has complete voting control and cannot be removed the way a CEO at any other company facing this kind of pressure. He makes the decisions and sets the policies. The boycott cost Mark Zuckerberg $7 billion when Facebook stock tanked last week after Zuckerberg didn’t spark excitement in an 11-minute video outlining new Facebook policies, but if Facebook/Zuckerberg are playing the long game, this is just a bump in the road. The brands will be back. 

And this is the cynical side-effect of the boycott: the P.R. play.

At this stage of the game, there is no negative for a company to hop on the boycott bandwagon. It’s like a bunch of puppies tackling a toddler.

As soon as a company announces that it’s pulling spend (whatever that means; we’ll get to that in a second), a torrent of tweets and posts heralding the company flood our social streams. Reporters rush to tweet X Company Boycotts. 

And then media outlets, not wanting to miss the news while also capitalizing on search traffic (because everyone is looking for which brands are boycotting Facebook) and/or have an easy lay-up to fulfill ad impressions goals, create “trackers” of all the companies sitting on the Facebook sidelines in July. 

A smattering:

  • Ad Age: A continually updated list of brands joining the Facebook boycott

  • Adweek: Here Are All the Major Brands Not Advertising on Facebook

  • CNN: Facebook boycott: View the list of companies pulling ads

  • Fortune: These big businesses are all boycotting Facebook ads

  • New York Times: The Brands Pulling Ads From Facebook Over Hate Speech

  • USA Today: Facebook advertising boycott list: Companies halting ads include Unilever, Coca-Cola, Verizon, Ben & Jerry's

  • Yahoo: Here's a running list of companies boycotting Facebook

Brands that say they’re boycotting Facebook are reaping the rewards of tons of earned media, cashing in on people’s antipathy towards Facebook while at the same time people’s faulty memories. 

For example, Verizon thumped its chest on Friday for saying it, too, will suspend its Facebook ad spend for July. Verizon is one of the biggest spenders on Facebook. But it also lost a $2.7 million discrimination lawsuit just last year.

According to Newsday:

Adan Abreu, who worked for the company on Fire Island, said in the suit he was discriminated against because of his dark skin and the company retaliated against him when he complained. After a 2 ½-week trial in U.S. District Court in Central Islip a 10-person jury agreed and made the award on Tuesday. The suit had sought about $3 million. It also names three Verizon managers, but only two were found liable, according to the jury verdict sheet.   

This discriminatory behavior seems at odds with the StopHateForProfit call for a boycott: “Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.” 

On Sunday, Starbucks trumpeted how it, too, will be pausing advertising on Facebook (and all social media) “while we continue discussions internally, with our media partners and with civil rights organizations in the effort to stop the spread of hate speech.”

But just two weeks ago, it reversed its policy on not allowing Black Lives Matter apparel. BuzzFeed reported on June 12:

On June 1, the coffee retailer vowed on Twitter to "stand in solidarity with our Black partners, customers and communities.” A few days later, it tweeted, and then pinned, a more in-depth commitment to supporting Black Lives Matter and confronting bias and racism and to “being a part of change.”

Being part of that change does not extend, however, to allowing the company’s baristas and other employees to wear T-shirts, pins, or any other accessory that mentions Black Lives Matter.

Two days later, the coffee company reversed course, saying:

“We see you. We hear you. Black Lives Matter. That is a fact and will never change. This movement is a catalyst for change, and right now, it’s telling us a lot of things need to be addressed so we can make space to heal.”

The point is this: if companies were really the values-based entities they say they are—their justification for boycotting Facebook—they’d work on themselves before announcing how evil they think Facebook is.

They’d also deactivate their accounts; a boycott isn’t just for a month. If you want to live your values, live your values all the time, not just when it is expedient. 

But it’s challenging. Companies rely on Facebook for a variety of things—marketing, public relations, customer relations, etc. Pulling the plug isn’t an option, especially since, at this point, Facebook’s web architecture is embedded in almost every aspect of the digital ecosystem.

Also, as Gizmodo pointed out:

Despite the accolades they’ve garnered with the press and the public, none of the brands that have taken center stage in the current campaign confirmed to Gizmodo that they were actually pulling 100% of the bucks we all assumed that they were. Rather, it seems like many of them are leaving the door open to funnel that money into Facebook properties that are lesser-known, or based overseas.

More reporters should look at this boycott beyond the horse-race mentality of “who’s boycotting.” Follow the money and they’ll find that perhaps these companies are not on the level when they say they’re pulling spend. (If they actually know where their spend is going in the first place.) 

One more cynical point of view: Many of these companies pausing spend are in financial constraints due to the impact of coronavirus on their business. Starbucks lost $3 billion in Q1; Diageo could lose $250 million this year; many companies are delaying quarterly reporting for Q2, which ends tomorrow, because of the volatility of the market. 

Companies are losing money because of the coronavirus, and pulling social spend in support of a boycott of a perceived villain is a pretty good P.R. cover.

The intention behind the boycott is to force pressure on Facebook to change how it operates. This is a good thing. Facebook’s role as a conduit of spreading misinformation and hate is not in question. And as America is in the throws of a pandemic and presidential election, Facebook needs to change its policies and behaviors so that people can get the best information possible.

But since we can walk and chew gum at the same time, perhaps the companies piling onto Facebook should also look inside their own houses and make the necessary changes that the boycott stands for. 

Pulling ad spend for Facebook is one part of an equation that unfortunately has many bad actors (new data shows, for example, that Fox News “may have kept millions of Americans from taking the coronavirus threat seriously”), and perhaps it’s time for companies to not just blame others for their own bad behaviors.

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The Band, “I Shall Be Released”

Some interesting links:

  • The real cost of Amazon (Recode)

  • Doctors Banish Magazines in Another Pandemic Blow to Print (Bloomberg)

  • Marty Baron Made The Post Great Again. Now, the News Is Changing. (NYT)

  • CNN’s Van Jones Secretly Helped Craft the Weak Trump Police Reform He Praised on TV (Daily Beast)

  • Would you like to buy a bunker? (The New Yorker)

  • No more going viral: why not apply social distancing to social media? (The Guardian)