By Paul Jacobson -- After CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would change its name, the brilliant Dispatch web site noted that "Kanye isn’t the only one ... Facebook is reportedly planning to rebrand the social media giant next week like Google did with 'Alphabet' a few years ago. That’ll fix everything!”
When Zuckerberg announced the new name, "Meta," that same cynical thought no doubt ran through the heads of many crisis communications people like us. One thing we know is that timing is a key part of any corporate name change. And Facebook's timing is bad.
The one thing you don't do in the midst of a PR crisis is change your name.
It looks like you're trying to hide the bad news behind a new moniker. Change the name after you've weathered the crisis, addressed its issues and restored trust in the business.
Google changed its parent name to Alphabet to underscore the company was more than a search engine. Dunkin' Donuts changed to just Dunkin' because most of its sales came from products other than donuts -- mostly coffee. (Though I still don't get it. Dunkin' what? And as a native New Englander I find lopping "donuts" off the name a mild form of sacrilege.)
Neither of those companies were in the middle of a PR crisis when the new names rolled out.
Other companies in crisis were smart enough to wait until it was over. Remember ValuJet, the 1990's east coast discount airline that plowed a DC-9 into the Florida everglades killing 110 people? Subsequent investigations showed the airline guilty of multiple safety violations. It suspended operations. Numerous official investigations were launched. When it finally returned to the air as a much smaller operation business plummeted.
It was more than a year later, after investigators found the cause and the rest of the poor maintenance dirty laundry was aired that ValuJet merged operations with a smaller airline and changed its name to AirTran. AirTran grew into a successful regional discount carrier until it was bought by Southwest Airlines and ceased flying in 2014.
Now comes Facebook in the middle of a bad news deluge courtesy of whistleblower Frances Haugen that is still unfolding. Internal documents showing the company knew its platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram, were spreading misinformation and causing self-esteem issues for teenage girls. Then came further revelations of special VIP users with a different set of rules and poor control of inflammatory rhetoric that led to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and rioting in India and Ethiopia.
Of course, when CEO Zuckerberg rolled out the new "Meta" name at a company event there was no mention of the ongoing crisis, just a lot of corporate blather about a "new North Star" of bringing the metaverse to life.
Immediately the media and a lot of observers saw through this, putting Facebook in the company of other corporate bête noirs like tobacco, agrochemical, oil and private mercenary companies that tried the same thing. Philip Morris became Altria, Bayer dropped the Monsanto name, BP rolled out “beyond petroleum” and Blackwater turned into Academi.
Even if Zuckerberg’s name change motivation was pure, the timing gives every media organization a reason to repeat the whole “Facebook Files” storyline -- and late-night comics grist for their joke writers’ mills.
One of Facebook’s harshest critics, “The Real Facebook Oversight Board,” puckishly announced it was not changing its name, saying “Changing their name doesn’t change reality: Facebook is destroying our democracy and is the world’s leading peddler of disinformation and hate.”
We may never know Facebook’s internal decision process that led to the timing of this announcement, but chances are one or more of their smart corporate communicators advised against it -- but c-suite and CEO hubris ruled the day.
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