Facebook: Privacy Problems and PR Nightmare

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET, May 27, 2010

Facebook's 26-year-old founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg may be a brilliant software geek, but he's lousy at public relations. In fact the most amazing thing about Facebook's current crisis over user privacy is how bad the company's PR machine is.

Instead of making things better, Facebook's spin doctors just keep making things worse. Instead of restoring trust in Facebook, they just make the company seem more slippery and sneaky. Best example is an op-ed that Zuckerberg published earlier this week in the Washington Post, a classic piece of evasive corporate-speak that could only have been written by PR flacks.

In the op-ed, Zuckerberg pretends to believe that the biggest concern users have is how complicated Facebook's privacy controls are. He vows to remedy that by making things simpler.

But the real problem isn't the complexity of Facebook's privacy controls. The problem is the privacy policy itself. Of course Zuckerberg knows this. He's many things, but stupid isn't one of them. The real point of his essay, in fact, was that Facebook has no intention of rolling back the stuff that people are really upset about.

The company did revise its privacy policy this week, and some privacy experts were appeased, while others said Facebook still has more work to do. For one thing, if you want to keep Facebook from sharing your info with Facebook apps and connected Web sites, you have to opt out -- meaning, the default setting is you're sharing. From my perspective a better policy would just to have everything set to private, by default.

But at this point the details of the policy aren't even the real issue. The real issue is one of perception, which is that sure, Facebook made some changes, but only because they had no choice. The perception is that Facebook got caught doing something wrong, and sheepishly backed down. That is the narrative that will be attached to this latest episode, and it's not a good one for Facebook.

As for that vapid op-ed earlier in the week, Facebook might also have thought twice about publishing the piece in The Washington Post, since Donald E. Graham, chairman of the Post, also sits on Facebook's board of directors and has been an important mentor to Zuckerberg.

Everyone involved, including Graham himself, says nobody pulled any strings, that Facebook just submitted the piece to the Post without Graham's knowledge, and the Post chose to run it because it was of interest to readers.

In other words we are asked to believe that though Graham and Zuckerberg are close friends, and presumably Zuckerberg has been consulting with Graham (and other board members) over the privacy crisis, Zuckerberg and his team never mentioned to Graham the fact that Facebook was going to publish an op-ed in Graham's newspaper.

Okay. Maybe that's true. Nevertheless, of all the newspapers in the world, why choose the one that's owned by one of your board members? Chalk up another clunker for the Facebook p.r. team.

Facebook's real problem now is that Zuckerberg and his PR reps have made so many ludicrous statements that it's hard to believe anything they say. They've claimed that they're only changing privacy policies because that is what member want. They've said, when the current crisis began, that there was nothing wrong with the policy itself - the problem was simply that Facebook hadn't explained it well enough.

One gets the impression that Facebook doesn't take any of this stuff very seriously. It just views the complaints as little fires that need to be put out. The statements Facebook issues aren't meant to convey any real information - they're just blasts from a verbal fire extinguisher, a cloud of words intended not to inform, but to smother.

Just keep talking, the idea seems to be, and it doesn't matter what you say. In fact the more vapid and insincere you can be, the better. Eventually the world will get sick of the sound of your voice, and the whiners will give up and go away.

Of course Facebook wouldn't need to do any of this spinning if it would just fix its privacy policy. It could, for example, go back to the policy it used in 2005, which said your info would only be shared with your friends.

No doubt Zuckerberg has performed a bunch of calculations, weighing the cost of the bad publicity against the benefit of getting hold of all that user data. And he's decided to push on and endure the black eye.

Which tells you all you need to know about Mark Zuckerberg, and the value of the information that Facebook is collecting.