It’s rare that one story, even in the New York Times, holds large ramifications for entire industries. But I would argue that Thursday’s NY Times investigation into how Facebook responded to privacy and Russian trolling issues is just such a story.

Reading the excerpt on my cell phone in a doctor’s office, I commented to a friend that we may look back on this day as the beginning of the end of social media.  My gut feeling was, and remains, that at some point society will simply take away its permission for social media to exist as we know it today.

Facebook has struggled for years to maintain the trust of its users, and has never been particularly successful. The NY Times expose gives us dozens more reason not to trust it.

But Facebook isn’t alone, the torrent of hate and invective that YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and others have unleashed in the world are turning off users on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s not impossible to envision  a time when all that is left on those platforms are trolls and bots and influencers trying to undermine democracy and social justice.

Interestingly, within hours, highly respected, and highly placed friends, many of whom are communications professionals were wondering whether they should go off Facebook forever. Many said they would. Given the nature of my business, I actually need a Facebook account to access data for my clients, but I have already dramatically reduced the amount of time I spend on it.

It will be awhile before users’ trust in social media (as we know it today) declines sufficiently to impact advertising revenue and ultimately impacts financial health of these companies. But in a competitive market, few brands are immune to a lack of trust. Just ask Arthur Anderson or Lehman Brothers or AIG  or Enron or any of the brands of the last century that the next generation of consumers will never hear of.

And for those of you who will protest that they can’t survive without knowing what happened to our high school sweethearts, and who honestly love hearing what our crazy cousins on the other side of the political spectrum are saying today, I have no doubt that there will be alternatives.  Already platforms like NextDoor and Ancestry are connecting people in new ways, and I have no doubt we will find others, but with luck they won’t be as interesting to Russian trolls and won’t build a financial model based on selling our personal information.

However, it also must be noted that social media isn’t the only industry that may feel the impact of yesterday’s New York Times. The PR industry needs to learn a lesson from Facebook’s woes.

When serious charges surfaced that Facebook helped undermine US and UK elections, that it ignored warnings that it was being used to undermine civil rights in Myanmar and other countries and that foreign operatives continue to use Facebook for malevolent purposes its response was to polish its image with a PR firm  — specifically Definers, a conservative PR firm whose mission, according to one of its lead consultants, Tim Miller,  was to “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor.”

My hunch is that most PR people who read that statement said “yeah, so?” It’s in fact the goal of 80% of the PR programs I’ve measured. But when those tactics are positioned by no less an influential media outlet than the NY Times as undermining civil society, the rest of society may have a different point of view.  On NPR this morning, that basic PR move was described by one of its targets as “Black Ops.”

Yes, of course, every corporation has a PR agency or a PR person to protect its image. We frequently joke that the best way to increase PR’s share of the budget is to have a crisis.

But we know that there is always a tipping point when customers, shareholders, and communities realize that they are being fed a line of BS and begin to reject those lines. In fact, when I heard this morning that Sheryl Sandberg said that she was “unaware” that Facebook had hired Definers I screamed “BS” at my radio. I am sufficiently jaded that I never believe the “I didn’t know” defense when a senior VP claims it.

There’s always been a fine line between PR and Black Ops, but as that line has become increasingly blurred in a society that has unlimited access to information (be it false or true)  I wonder how long brand “PR” can survive?

It’s rare that one story, even in the New York Times, holds large ramifications for entire industries. But I would argue that Thursday’s NY Times investigation into how Facebook responded to privacy and Russian trolling issues is just such a story.

Reading the excerpt on my cell phone in a doctor’s office, I commented to a friend that we may look back on this day as the beginning of the end of social media.  My gut feeling was, and remains, that at some point society will simply take away its permission for social media to exist as we know it today.

Facebook has struggled for years to maintain the trust of its users, and has never been particularly successful. The NY Times expose gives us dozens more reason not to trust it.

But Facebook isn’t alone, the torrent of hate and invective that YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and others have unleashed in the world are turning off users on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s not impossible to envision  a time when all that is left on those platforms are trolls and bots and influencers trying to undermine democracy and social justice.

Interestingly, within hours, highly respected, and highly placed friends, many of whom are communications professionals were wondering whether they should go off Facebook forever. Many said they would. Given the nature of my business, I actually need a Facebook account to access data for my clients, but I have already dramatically reduced the amount of time I spend on it.

It will be awhile before users’ trust in social media (as we know it today) declines sufficiently to impact advertising revenue and ultimately impacts financial health of these companies. But in a competitive market, few brands are immune to a lack of trust. Just ask Arthur Anderson or Lehman Brothers or AIG  or any of the brands of the last century that the next generation of consumers will never hear of.

And for those of you who will protest that they can’t survive without knowing what happened to our high school sweethearts, and who honestly love hearing what our crazy cousins on the other side of the political spectrum are saying today, I have no doubt that there will be alternatives.  Already platforms like NextDoor and Ancestry are connecting people in new ways, and I have no doubt we will find others, but with luck they won’t be as interesting to Russian trolls and won’t build a financial model based on selling our personal information.

However, it also must be noted that social media isn’t the only industry that may feel the impact of yesterday’s New York Times. The PR industry needs to learn a lesson from Facebook’s woes.

When serious charges surfaced that Facebook helped undermine US and UK elections, that it ignored warnings that it was being used to undermine civil rights in Myanmar and other countries and that foreign operatives continue to use Facebook for malevolent purposes its response was to polish its image with a PR firm. It hired Definers, a conservative PR firm whose mission, according to one of its lead consultants, Tim Miller,  was to “have positive content pushed out about your company and negative content that’s being pushed out about your competitor.”

My hunch is that most PR people who read that statement said “yeah, so?” It’s in fact the goal of 80% of the PR programs I’ve measured. But when those tactics are positioned by no less an influential media outlet than the NY Times as undermining civil society, the rest of society may have a different point of view.  On NPR this morning, that basic PR move was described by one of its targets as “Black Ops.”

Yes, of course, every corporation has a PR agency or a PR person to protect its image. We frequently joke that the best way to increase PR’s share of the budget is to have a crisis.

But we know that there is always a tipping point when customers, shareholders, and communities realize that they are being fed a line of BS and begin to reject those lines. In fact, when I heard this morning that Sheryl Sandberg said that she was “unaware” that Facebook had hired Definers I screamed “BS” at my radio. I am sufficiently jaded that I never believe the “I didn’t know” defense when a senior VP claims it.

There’s always been a fine line between PR and Black Ops, but as that line has become increasingly blurred in a society that has unlimited access to information (be it false or true)  I wonder how long brand “PR” can survive?

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