The Fed's Disastrous Facebook Page Launch

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WASHINGTON — When the Federal Reserve Board finally launched its own Facebook page last week, the response was as swift as it was predictable.

The page was quickly overrun by critics, who angrily denounced the central bank as a tool of Wall Street and accused it of working against the American public.

"The Federal Reserve is the root of all problems in the United States," Luke Peets, a libertarian, wrote in a response that earned nearly 500 likes on its own and was typical of the commentary on the page.

Although the Fed racked up "likes" for the page — topping 11,000 by Monday afternoon — the comments it received were almost universally negative, leaving some to wonder how long it would be before the central bank would decide to retreat.

"Really surprised you still have this page up! Considering no one wants you around anymore!" wrote Zipper Stix, a Facebook user. "AUDIT AND BAN THE ‘FEDERAL’ RESERVE!!!!"

The Fed’s move surprised more than internet trolls, however, but also social media experts, who questioned what the central bank was trying to accomplish and its overall commitment to social media. To some, the page appeared to take a particularly clueless approach.

All of the postings — eight by deadline — were either press releases, speeches by officials or general explainers on the nature of the Fed system. Essentially, the Fed is using Facebook as one more way in which it releases its standard public relations material.

That fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Facebook, which is a social network designed for interaction and conversation — not the simple spouting of PR.

The Fed is "checking a box," said Frank Eliason, the head of customer experience for Zeno Group and formerly head of global social media at Citigroup. " 'We were told we should be in social media.' This is the biggest mistake I see."

Social media experts universally faulted the Fed for failing to respond to any comments it received. No one expected the central bank to take on trolls opposed to, say, the existence of the Fed itself. But failing to even generally respond is a big mistake, they said.

"They are not responding at all from what I can see," said Jennifer Abernethy, president of Socially Delivered, a global social media management concierge firm, and the author of "The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Social Media Marketing."

"They don’t need to respond to everybody, but at the end of the day, post some kind of response," Abernethy said. "They need to see if they can turn it back around and get it to be more of a conversation."

That may be its most egregious error, experts said — and a sign that the Fed’s social media strategy will be a failure. By just posting press releases and speeches, the Fed may be inadvertently reinforcing critics’ views of the institution.

"You really want to come across as one with the community rather than ‘I’m speaking at you,' " Eliason said. " 'Let me teach you about the Federal Reserve' — that’s not being one with the community. It’s sending a message that we view ourselves as above. It’s playing into the stereotype of what people think."

But the Fed can still turn it around, experts said. If it were to engage in a human, nonbureaucratic way and show it is at least listening to its critics, the perception might change.

"If they respond in a positive way, people will appreciate it," said John Siracusa, founder and chief executive officer of #Banksocial. "They should figure out a way to respond. I would tell a bank to relook at their strategy and figure out how to listen to these people. If they do nothing at all, angry people get angrier."

Siracusa said the Fed needed to "humanize the brand, not just let negative comments go wild, because that doesn’t help."

Several also noted that the Fed’s page is less than a week old — and like most entities, the central bank needs time to figure out how it will interact on the site.

"It’s too early to tell," Abernethy said. "There are ways to turn it around so it’s more of a positive information-sharing."

Others also noted the challenges faced by government agencies on Facebook. It can be difficult to strike the right tone and most fail to meaningfully respond to users’ comments. Eliason said that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s site did a particularly good job with its postings, but noted that the agency is viewed as there for the consumer.

"The Federal Reserve has often been viewed — rightly or wrongly — as representative of the industry," he said.

That makes the Fed’s job even tougher. Eliason recommended that the Fed find ways to show how the agency affects everyday consumers or even just ask questions of users.

And some said the Fed at least deserves some credit for trying to navigate Facebook. Of the federal banking agencies, only the Fed and CFPB have official pages.

"Inside federal agencies, there can be a lot of internal skepticism about the value of having a presence on social media," said Jeremy Cluchey, who helped the Government Accountability Office develop its social media strategy. "Just getting there can take a lot of work and a lot of internal convincing… It's better if you can have a full strategy, but I think it's not always realistic."

All that said, the Fed may have waited too long to launch a Facebook page. Most banks have long created their own sites and many were surprised the Fed did not have a site already. The central bank is already on Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.

Whether the Fed’s move is too late depends on what the agency’s goals are — which are unclear at the moment. In announcing the new page on Thursday, the Fed said it was doing so to increase "the accessibility and availability of Federal Reserve Board news and educational content."

It said it would use the site to promote press releases, speeches, testimony, educational materials, photos and videos. A Fed spokesman did not comment.

Eliason questioned the value of a Facebook page at this stage, noting that unless the Fed was willing to pay for ads on the platform, it is unclear how many of its posts anyone will notice.

"They are really late to the game," he said. "Every piece of content you put out there costs money. It cost money to develop it, it costs money to get it approved and … they are not going to see it going to very many people."

Abernethy disagreed, arguing that as Facebook evolves it is critical to maintain some kind of presence there. She noted that it was positive the Fed attracted so many likes so quickly.

"Facebook is going to keep changing," she said. "With virtual and augmented reality coming, if they are going to stay relevant, they need to be part of the digital conversation."

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