Remember Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy story? Of course you do. The attention she garnered propelled Facebook, the Internet’s favorite whipping boy, into a conversation about breast cancer survivors that it never wanted, and from which it could never gain.
A photographer posted dramatic photos of mastectomied women and was temporarily banned from the social network under Facebook’s vague guidelines regarding nudity. His cause was taken up by an activist outraged at Facebook’s seeming insensitivity. The activist, a Stage IV cancer survivor herself, started an online petition calling on Facebook to reverse itself – and got more than 20,000 signatures overnight.
Facebook, to its credit, reached out to the activist and clarified its policy on post-mastectomy photos, which is now its own paragraph on the site’s community standards page. In a statement, Facebook said it had always permitted such photos, but took some down after users complained. The reworded policy made their acceptability on the site explicit. The action should have generated “win-win” type headlines. Instead what emerged were headlines of Facebook “bowing to consumer pressure.” For Facebook, no good deed goes unpunished.
THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Facebook, for suffering the PR consequences without complaining.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: A measured response is always best. When you have bigger PR headaches – like allegations that you let the Government spy on your users, for example – it could be tempting to look for a way to deflect negative attention and polish your public image. But doing so carries risks you look callow and opportunistic. Facebook could have made more noise about its policy change to garner good publicity but recognized that the story was not in their control. Better then to take your lumps and turn the page. In the world of PR, it’s important not to bring a fly swatter to a gun fight. And don’t bring an F-16, either.