Unfriended: What Facebook tells us about PRs and the media

Search current articles on Facebook and you’ll find pages and pages on its exciting new messaging app. What is clearly a Snap Chat rip-off, the app allows users to share photos and videos that vanish in 24 hours. That this news itself comes little more than a day after a BBC report into the social network’s shambolic response to a investigation into its tepid policing of paedophilic images is surely less than coincidental.

The example speaks volumes for the current state of PR. It began last year when the BBC found that paedophiles were using secret groups on Facebook to share sexual images of children. At the time the social media company agreed to act; yet of the hundreds of images reported only 18 were removed. When the BBC brought this to Facebook’s attention  the site’s director of policy asked to see proof. Screen shots were emailed; however, as the emails obviously contained explicit images of children Facebook abided by company process and reported the journalist to the police. With one fell swoop Facebook impressively leapt from the saucepan and into the blitzkrieg. Somewhat predictably the Today programme struggled to find anyone from the social media company who was available for comment.

Despite letting the story slip out of its hands Facebook didn’t finished the week as a broken brand. Far from it. The story of paedophile groups has all but dropped off the media radar. True, in the week of the Budget non-financial stories struggle for airtime. But the extent to which the media agenda has moved on and returned to running puff vanity pieces about new apps demonstrates that a certain kind of PR has triumphed over a certain kind of journalism.

Despite its gutters and its hackers there is still a perception, particularly among the idealistic boomers, that journalism is fit to hold the high and mighty to account. There are of course brilliant writers and reporters filing copy that does their profession proud. But as budgets are squeezed ever further there is little to suggest that the ground is being laid for the next generation of formidable journalists. What infrastructure is there to support in-depth and long-lead investigations or informed international reporting? If you are smart and ambitious journalism is not the career it once was. Conversely, where once PR was the Willy Loman of the media world it is now drawing in the best and brightest for whom adding to the click bait churn doesn’t quite cut it.

As a PR who cares about engaging the public, this is not a cause for celebration. Without strength on either side of the PR-journalism divide the conversation falls flat. What we saw with the Facebook non-response was a refusal to engage. Rather than addressing the very serious concerns of the BBC the social network decided to speak about itself to itself. When you have a team full of bright young storytellers this has never been easier. When you are journalist cooped up in a news sweatshop pumping out clickbait, challenging those stories has never been harder.