From Boardroom to Living Room: How Facebook’s Many PR Initiatives Intertwine to Deliver Its Messaging

The company has an agency in every country where it has a presence

Facebook has at least a dozen PR companies employed to help propagate its messages. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

On the bad side of the news spectrum, Facebook has been dealing with crisis after crisis after crisis after crisis. On the good side, the social network continues to debut new products and features.

As big as Facebook is—33,606 employees as of Sept. 30, according to its third-quarter-2018 financial results—it’s not making these announcements and dealing with the fallout from past bad decisions on its own. It takes a village.

Messages don’t happen in a vacuum. Companies have communications teams, both internal and external, to help shape and distribute those messages. Often, outside public relations agencies are used to pitch stories to the media, from product rollouts to personnel announcements to crisis management.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal about the misuse of people’s personal data began dominating the news, the response that was “crafted” by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, likely with the help of media relations experts both inside Facebook and from agencies, was an apologetic tone and stressing the need to do a better job.

And it worked. Versions of that terminology made it onto news outlets including USA Today, CNN, CNBC, Financial Times, Fortune, Wired, Recode, The Verge, Mashable, Gizmodo, Engadget, The Washington Times and, yes, Adweek.

On a less controversial note, Zuckerberg’s revamping of Facebook’s mission statement last year to “bring people closer together” led to that phrase appearing on sites like CNN, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Bloomberg, The Guardian, Daily Mail, Fortune, Wired, VentureBeat, TechCrunch, The Verge and, yes, again, Adweek.

Many large companies will hire several PR shops for different tasks. Some do media relations, trying to curry favor with reporters. Some do “thought leadership,” getting their clients speaking engagements or bylines in publications. Others focus on helping brands navigate internal communications challenges.

Facebook, the behemoth that it is, has at least one-dozen PR firms helping its 300-person internal communications team create and propagate messaging.

Companies will use different firms for different projects. There could be an agency that focuses on the advertising trade media press and another that focuses on national or political press. And these services are not cheap. An agency can charge thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars per month for retainer-based services as well as hundreds to thousands for one-off projects.

Facebook, the behemoth that it is, has at least one-dozen PR firms helping its 300-person internal communications team create and propagate messaging. Indeed, the company has an agency in every country where it has a presence, according to sources with knowledge. These sources say agencies are paid between $10,000 and $100,000 per month, putting back-of-the-envelope math at anywhere from $120,000 to more than $1.2 million per year on communications agencies alone.

“While Facebook has a publicly recognized agency of record, there might be other projects Facebook wants to execute that are both discrete and discreet,” said Curtis Sparrer, principal at boutique tech PR firm Bospar. “Having a separate agency that is not publicly or closely associated with them would be the best answer, especially if they are practicing the dark arts of PR.”

Those dark arts surfaced in 2011 when employees of PR giant Burson-Marsteller tried to push high-profile news outlets including USA Today and The Washington Post to write negative stories about Google. A spokesman for the agency told The Guardian at the time that the assignment ran afoul of its policies and should have been declined, and the relationship between Facebook and Burson-Marsteller was terminated.

Facebook would not comment for this article.

Of the dozen PR firms Facebook uses, The OutCast Agency, which did not comment for this story, has been Facebook’s unofficial main agency. For roughly a decade, the company has helped push Facebook’s announcements on topics including new products and features (for both consumers and businesses), updates, events, engagement-related data and success stories from brands.

Two recent additions to Facebook’s roster of PR firms, Definers Public Affairs and Targeted Victory, have drawn negative attention for their conservative political leanings and reports on how they were used by Facebook.

Arlington, Va.-based Definers Public Affairs was prominently mentioned in a New York Times report in November indicating that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg instructed the company to probe the finances of left-leaning billionaire George Soros after he made negative comments about the social network. Definers did not respond to requests for comment, but it said in a statement that it was “not hired by Facebook as an opposition research firm” and that its “main services for Facebook were basic media monitoring and public relations around public policy issues facing the company.”

A second statement pointed to a memo to Facebook employees from Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s outgoing head of public policy, in which he wrote, “We asked Definers to do what public relations firms typically do to support a company—sending us press clippings, conducting research, writing messaging documents and reaching out to reporters.”

The other addition, Targeted Victory, also based in Arlington, was described in 2016 by Darren Samuelsohn and Daniel Lippman of Politico as “the GOP’s go-to technology consultant firm.”

Targeted Victory founder and CEO Zac Moffatt downplayed the political angle, saying, “Most of our work with Facebook was straightforward, nonpartisan, nonpolitical public affairs.”

The firm worked with the social network on its Facebook Community Boost initiative to train 1 million small business owners in the U.S. in digital skills by 2020, and Moffatt said much of Targeted Victory’s work involved getting local politicians and business leaders involved in the 50-plus events held across the country.

Moffatt added, “In some cities, it would be crazy to only have conservative outreach because some cities are left of center and more urban.”

How a message snakes from boardroom to newsroom to living room takes a little bit of planning and a whole lot of luck. Especially when, like Facebook, you have PR firms all across the globe—and not just for Facebook proper, but for other Facebook-owned companies like Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus VR.

It takes a village, indeed, although this village is more like a sprawling galaxy. David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.