How to Avoid Being the Next ‘Instagram Kids:’ A PR Approach to Product Reputation Reviews

Early last month, the Wall Street Journal reported Facebook is conducting reputation reviews of its products. This followed whistleblower Frances Haugen’s leak of documents alleging Facebook knew one of its products had adverse effects on young womens’ mental health but had done nothing about it.

This tumult triggered yet another wave of congressional hearings about the tech giant and coincided with Facebook pausing release of an Instagram product for kids. Apparently the pause was the result of more than a dozen Facebook employees now reviewing projects and planned product releases with an eye to public response.

Given that a company of Facebook’s clout and perceived indifference to public scrutiny seems worried about product-related backlash, it follows that communicators at all organizations should consider reviewing products and services prior to launch.

As such, we asked PR pros to assess the state of reputation reviews.

Do Competitive Research First

Gene Grabowski, principal at kglobal, has conducted internal product reviews for corporations, universities and nonprofits. While an internal review is crucial, he believes competitive research should be a keystone of the review strategy.

Anticipate audience questions

Sarah Evans, founder and CEO of Sevans Strategy, stresses sniffing out the why of a potential product-related backlash and preparing responsive messaging up-front.

For example, if a backlash is anticipated from customers unhappy because a product or experience has changed, she advises holding focus groups and tracking customer questions. That way, PR pros can generate FAQs and how-to content pre-launch.

“If no answers are available to the public, audiences will always create their own narrative,” she says.

Reviewing for Cultural Sensitivity

As an advisor to clients on diversity and inclusion issues, Jenny Wang, a Clyde Group VP, agrees with Grabowski on the importance of competitive analysis. She tells companies to carefully analyze competitors’ and peers’ D&I efforts before launching such initiatives.

Communicators should investigate the reception for similar initiatives, internally and externally, and play out potential backlash scenarios based on that research.

Admittedly, there may be little evidence about how DEI initiatives at other companies are faring. Still, history shows ill-received internal memos can become external knowledge quickly.

Jessica Hollister, director, global communications and experiences at The North Face, has an internal system “to review and report product, specifically around cultural sensitivity.”

She admits the system isn’t perfect, but notes the company maintains a Review Board of stakeholders across the organization. This group has the power to flag issues and flexibility to make adjustments.

“We’re constantly working to improve this process and include it earlier and earlier in the product-development cycle,” Hollister says.

She stresses the importance of “ingraining psychological safety into the core of our culture, which allows any associate to raise concerns about product or creative without fear of retribution or judgement.”

Catching the Threat Post-Launch

After a product launches, Hollister’s team maintains an open line of communication to the customer service team. Despite conducting pre-launch reputation reviews for products and services, issues sometimes elude scrutiny.

For example, Hollister dealt recently with a customer complaint about a product name “that no one in the organization had flagged as a concern due to its widespread use within the apparel industry.”

Within 48 hours, the team convened a taskforce to review the name, reached out to nonprofit partners to confirm next steps and immediately implemented a name change.

How Often Should Reviews be Conducted?

While Grabowski advises conducting reputation reviews every five years at minimum (and ideally, annually), some companies, particularly startups, may hold reviews quarterly, examining reach, impact and narrative.

Simplicity and Journalist Relationships

Grabowski and Evans likened their product-review methodology to classic crisis preparation. Grabowski stresses the importance of simplicity and concision.

“The days of massive, 80-page crisis plans are long gone. Plans must be simple, include a table of contents, diagrams and a timeline of events so even new employees can implement them at a glance, Grabowski says. If plans are too complex or long, few staff will understand them and even fewer will read them, he warns. Crisis preparation should also include drills to test plans and the people charged with executing them, he adds.

Evans suggests holding informal discussions with journalists who cover your industry to best suss out how they might cover the type of crises likely to hit your brand.

Facebook Products: Too ‘Meta’?

Perhaps trying to distance itself from toxic social media following Haugen’s whistleblowing, Facebook raised eyebrows when The Verge reported the company’s plan to change its name. Indeed, Facebook made its name-change announcement, to Meta, at our press time.

More than that, Nick Clegg, Meta’s VP of global affairs, seemed to flip-flop on the Haugen documents. Dismissing them initially and lately lauding their research as a way “to better understand how our services affect people, so we can improve them.” In other words, reputation reviews are good.

If Facebook seeks to sidestep threats to its dominance at the federal level, one would think a few reputation reviews are in the works before a 2D social network becomes 3D sci-fi reality.