WHAT SHOULD LOCAL REPORTERS make of Facebook’s efforts to shape access? It’s a question journalists have asked themselves in St. Louis, Missouri; Houston, Texas; Des Moines, Iowa; and Greenville, South Carolina, according to interviews I conducted with reporters based in those places. It’s a question I’ve recently had reason to ask myself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I cover business for the Albuquerque Journal.
It’s a question reporters ought to ask themselves in each of the 50 cities where the social media giant is launching Community Boost, a multi-day conference marketed as digital skills training for small businesses. (The majority of the sessions are about how to use Facebook and Instagram.) In some of the cities, Facebook is also partnering with community colleges to offer digital training programs and a select number of scholarships to coding bootcamps. While I was writing this piece, Facebook announced a pledge to train 1 million “people and small business owners across the US by 2020.”
My interaction with Community Boost in Albuquerque was disconcerting: Among other issues, Facebook held an off-the-record dinner with local media, and excluded me from an event with the governor. Shortly after the roadshow left town, I began to wonder about the experiences of reporters in the other cities Facebook visited.
With a few exceptions, nearly every reporter I spoke with who covered Community Boost had an anecdote like that of The Greenville News business reporter Anna B. Mitchell, who says she had to tell Facebook “no” four separate times after she was persistently pitched the same story. “It was much more than I’m used to being contacted, and it was rather insistent,” she says.
For stories she did cover, there were requests from Facebook for off-the-record and on-background interviews, even though the topic never strayed far from the company’s business-to-business roadshow and never seemed to warrant secrecy. Mitchell said the local public relations professional Facebook contracted with had to consistently push the company to keep events and interviews on the record. She also said The Greenville News’ metrics showed readers had grown tired of Community Boost coverage after three stories, and Mitchell eventually decided not to attend or cover the launch event.
Many large organizations have aggressive or tightly-managed public relations strategies. But not all companies are the subject of an international data scandal, and not all companies are traveling throughout the United States, forging relationships with journalists in each of those markets.
Daniel Kolitz, who wrote a story on Community Boost for The Atlantic, had a more extreme experience. During the two weeks he was writing his article, Kolitz estimates he received an average of three calls, texts, or emails a day from a Facebook spokesman asking if he “needed anything.” At the launch event, he was followed by up to five Facebook employees at all times. He told me that at one point during the event, he exited the venue, only to find that security wouldn’t let him back in without a handler—despite the fact that the building and event were open to the public.
“It wasn’t like [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg was in the back handing out bags of data,” says Kolitz. “The funny thing is, the least flattering thing in what I wrote was about how much they were trying to control everything.”
Many large organizations have aggressive or tightly-managed public relations strategies. But not all companies are the subject of an international data scandal, and not all companies are traveling throughout the United States, forging relationships with journalists in each of those markets. In at least three cities, Facebook has invited reporters to a pre-launch event described variously as being off the record or on background. Those that attend end up providing free opinions to Facebook that are likely used to inform the company’s communications strategy: at the event, media are asked questions about their local communities and how reporters approach their stories. (Facebook told me the purpose of the events is to “listen and learn about the community, plus understand what type of information journalists are interested in receiving.”)
THE DESCRIPTION OF WHAT OCCURS at the events is based on several conversations with reporters who attended but did not want to be identified because they had agreed to Facebook’s off-the-record stipulation. I can’t tell you firsthand, because I refused to go to the event, and told both my local Facebook PR contractor (who was very understanding) and a Facebook spokesman (with whom I initially had a very contentious conversation) that I thought it was unethical to do so unless the company could come up with a good reason for all the secrecy. I could not identify another reporter who had taken a similar stand, though there very well may have been; those I spoke with who declined the invitation to the event said they did so because they thought it was a waste of time.
What happened later still astonishes me. On the day of the Community Boost kickoff event in Albuquerque, I arrived at the venue and was taken to one room to speak with several small business owners Facebook had pre-selected and given talking points. A short time later, my colleague at another publication was led to a different room where public officials were present—including the governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, who was the subject of a lawsuit related to media access and public records.
Was I punished for criticizing the off-the-record event? I will never know for sure. When I discovered what had happened, I called one of my Community Boost handlers in a blind rage and demanded an answer. She was apologetic and, after circling back with her superiors, told me that Facebook had decided to “pair different reporters with different events.” The company has since assured me that what happened was not retribution, and in an emailed statement a Facebook spokesman attributed the situation to a desire I expressed to interview small businesses. That’s not consistent with my recollection of what unfolded, so I still have my doubts.
Like any other reporter, I get scooped, and Facebook has the right to conduct its events however it chooses. But when you pair different reporters with different events in a state that has only a small number of journalists, this is what happens: The largest newspaper in New Mexico was unable to get an audience with the governor that day, and unable to ask her questions in situ about, say, whether the Cambridge Analytica scandal had impacted her thoughts on the generous incentive package the state gave Facebook for the $1 billion data center it is building outside of Albuquerque. After I complained, Facebook facilitated a statement from the governor’s office, though I told them that prepared remarks are a pale substitute for a live interview.
When this first happened, I was convinced that Facebook had done this intentionally, and I wanted blood. Now that I’ve done my research and talked to other reporters, I’m not so sure. It’s possible, as Mathew Ingram put it previously, that Facebook is an “elephant accidentally stepping on an ant,” inadvertently trampling on local media in the course of what it sees as normal business.
In an emailed response to questions I sent them, a Facebook spokesman said “local journalists are an integral part of this program, and we involve them in our events in a variety of ways. We’re thankful for the feedback we’ve received thus far – we’re always looking to improve the program as we head out to more cities this summer.” He also sent me several bullet points about Community Boost, attributable on background, some of which I have incorporated into this story.
I’ve covered Facebook extensively as a result of the data center here, and this is the first time I’ve had any issue along these lines. My local Facebook communications contact has been nothing but professional throughout this process, and the Facebook employees who led me from event to event at Community Boost went out of their way to be helpful to me. My relationship with the Facebook data center communications team has consistently been one of mutual understanding even when covering difficult topics.
But Community Boost is a different story, and that story is winding its way through the nation as we speak. I have no doubt that Facebook will continue the media relations practices it has exhibited thus far. But to what extent will journalists in those communities push back on the attempts to control and perhaps harvest information—especially if it means risking access to one of the most powerful technology companies in the world? My hope is that I am not alone in asking Facebook to be held just as accountable to Albuquerque—or St. Louis, Houston, or Des Moines—as it is to Washington.