Political advocacy group FWD.us was launched last month by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and so far it has run up an impressively depressing string of PR gaffes. As a tax-exempt “social welfare organization” (a la Citizens United), it can raise and spend money to promote political and legislative aims virtually unchecked. But the group’s missteps have made it the story instead of its cause and FWD.us now runs the risk of having little influence or gravitas.
Its initial focus was clear: comprehensive immigration reform. As a cause this made perfect sense. It is near and dear to talent-hungry tech firms and backed by deep-pocketed Silicon Valley luminaries including Eric Schmidt, Marissa Mayer and Bill Gates. The launch augured an auspicious foray into muscle-flexing issues advocacy in Washington.
But things went pear-shaped from the start. An embarrassing leak spoiled its launch, disclosing a seemingly unseemly strategy to promote its agenda via “avenues of distribution” dominated by member companies like Facebook and Yahoo. The leak forced president Joe Green (Zuck’s roommate at Harvard) to apologize. Then, it alienated supporters with a confusing advertising campaign that veered way off-topic, advocating for controversial projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and against Obamacare. FWD.us said the ads sought to create “political cover” for supporters of immigration reform in Congress, but its move prompted progressive organizations to pull ads from Facebook in protest, and two key Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to later withdraw from the group.
The PR Verdict: “F” (Full fiasco) to date for Zuckerberg’s FWD.us, for bungling what should have been a sure-footed start.
The PR Takeaway: Opening baby steps need to be unambiguous and unassailable. Opening gaffes can sink a new venture, and one misstep can lead to and/or magnify others. Move cautiously and deliberately. Leaks happen, so be mindful of how even internal communications might play in public. If something leaks, get back on message fast – with actions, not words, that spell out your group’s mission and galvanize supporters. This isn’t that hard. If Zuckerberg’s other business had stumbled as much at the outset, he might still be at Harvard studying for finals.