Facebook Efforts in Pakistan Show Doing Good Sometimes Hits a Snag

Doing good is a good thing, right? It would seem so. Yet experience shows brands can bring negative attention to themselves by going beyond the call of capitalism and trying to do things purely for humane purposes.

With more companies making an effort to be good corporate citizens and reports showing how important this is to millennials, it’s critical that brands approach corporate social responsibility as seriously as they transact commerce.

Most do-good actions brands undertake work as intended. There also are mistakes.

imagesThe latest example occurred over the weekend, when Facebook activated its Safety Check feature in response to Taliban bombings in Lahore, Pakistan. The bombings targeted Christians celebrating Easter and claimed more than 70 lives. The way Safety Check is supposed to work is that when Facebook decides to activate it in response to a disaster, a message is sent to users in locations near the disaster, urging them to reply that they are OK. Once that’s done, Facebook Friends of the person are notified.

Problem was that a bug, Facebook says, sent the inquiry message to people as far away from Lahore as N.Y. and Washington, D.C. Facebook users in Europe and Great Britain also received the message. Needless to say some recipients of the message became worried that a disaster had occurred near them. The story hit traditional media and social media. While some scoffed others lauded Facebook's attempt at being a good corporate citizen.

On the up side, Safety Check worked as intended during the dark events in Brussels last week.

Introduced in 2014, Safety Check initially was activated only in response to natural disasters, although Facebook has since expanded its scope to include man-made disasters, such as terrorist attacks.

In addition, several communications firms made like Facebook and offered users connections to contact loved ones in that imperiled city. Companies including Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T offered users free calls to Brussels, as did Canadian telecom providers Koodo, Telus and Wind Mobile. While these brands alerted users on social media, Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander de Croo urged citizens Tuesday to avoid phones, “mobile networks are getting saturated,” he tweeted. “Please contact through data messages: Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter. Avoid calls,” he added.

Of course, with a young company that grows exponentially, like Facebook, doing business is a constant learning experience. Indeed, the weekend’s bug is far from the only issue Safety Check has encountered. Several groups have wondered loudly why a disaster in their area failed to result in Safety Check being activated. The bombings in Paris last November was the first time Safety Check was activated in response to a man-made disaster. After the incidents in the French capital, several groups in Lebanon, where ISIS bombs killed some 40 people about the same time as the Paris incidents, challenged Facebook to explain why Safety Check was not activated for users there.

At the time Facebook acknowledged that it was a mistake not to activate Safety Check. In addition, it said it was learning in real time how to best use Safety Check and would, in the future, be more responsive as to when to activate it. A very good PR move, made with the right tone and done promptly. And then there was Lahore.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein